Deputy Cummings recognized for career of leadership in child vehicle safety
By Chris Hendrickson, Valley News
At a recent meeting of the Sultan City Council, Sultan residents learned that a quiet vehicle safety hero resides in Sultan, alongside his wife of 37 years.
At the meeting, former Snohomish County Sheriff’s Deputy John Cummings, who retired in March, received honors for his extensive work in traffic safety and child passenger safety, and fellow law enforcement professionals recounted details of Cumming’s career.
Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Captain David Bales was asked to present Cummings with the Director’s Coin, sent by Darrin Grondel, the Director of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, as a token of recognition for his efforts in child passenger safety.
Bales spoke of Cummings’ work and his passion for saving kids’ lives, praising him as both a deputy and an investigator, particularly a collision investigator.
“He can take a look at a crunched-up piece of metal and decide how that happened,” said Bales.
“There’s no doubt in any of our minds that John has saved countless lives,” he continued.
Bales read a letter from Grondel, which highlighted many of Cummings’ significant accomplishments.
“You have given your professional life to traffic safety, and your hard work and dedication has been a valuable asset to our state. While we can’t always measure this, I know that people are alive today from your commitment to making our roads safer. Because of your work, children have grown up to be adults, and parents were able to remain healthy and continue to parent,” wrote Grondel.
Cummings attributed his success and many accomplishments to simply being in the right place at the right time with the right people.
“There’s no way I can sum it up. It was a fantastic ride,” said Cummings.
A former U.S. Marine, Cummings had experience as both a military policeman and a military correctional officer. He became a patrol officer in 1983, in the small town of Oglesby, Ill.
Cummings and his wife moved to Sultan in 1989 and started working for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
His new role as patrol deputy with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office was a great fit.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” said Cummings, about moving to Sultan. “Working for the Sheriff’s office was basically dying and going to heaven.”
Cummings initially covered the east part of the county, which included 647 square miles from Everett to Baring. He worked the graveyard shift.
In 1994, working out of the East Precinct, his supervisor gave him the opportunity to obtain some additional training. Recent Snohomish County Sheriff candidate Tom Green, who at the time was a lieutenant, stuck a brochure in his mailbox for a three-day class about seatbelts and airbags put on by theNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration for Occupant Protection Usage and Enforcement.
Day three of the course was dedicated to child passenger safety, and Cummings met Kathy Kruger of the Washington State Safety Restraint Coalition, who taught the portion of the class featuring child car seat safety.Cummings was to work with Kruger extensively throughout his journey in becoming an expert of child passenger safety.
Cummings, who had a young daughter at the time, described how valuable and critical the information was that Kruger taught, specifically in regards to his own child.
“Within the first two hours I realized that from the time we put her in the car seat when she came home from the hospital, to that very time, we had not done it right,” said Cummings.
Then in 1996 came a pivotal event. It’s still difficult for Cummings to talk about, and every detail is still etched into his memory as he describes the situation clearly and carefully.
He was called to assist the state patrol with a two-vehicle accident in Startup. Upon his arrival, Cummings was directed to a car that was off the road, and as he approached, he noticed a group of emergency medical technicians frantically working on an 18-month-old baby boy.
The baby was wearing a blue terry cloth footie sleeper, with a little yellow duck on his chest, and didn’t appear to have a mark on him, said Cummings.
“It looked like he was sleeping,” he described.
An emergency transport helicopter arrived at the scene, and medics got the baby situated for transport to a trauma center.An emergency worker reported feeling a faint pulse just before they got him onboard.
Cummings returned to the vehicle to examine the car seat, and once he looked at it, he realized that something was not right.
“The car seat had a lot of damage to it but there wasn’t any intrusion into that area from the wreck,” explained Cummings. “There was nothing that would cause that type of damage.”
Cummings seized the car seat so that he could investigate further and have it examined by experts, but before he could get that far, he received a telephone call from the Sheriff’s office asking him to call someone named “Richard.” Richard turned out to be Richard Harruff, the chief pathologist for the King County Medical Examiner.
“Right then I knew that the little boy had not survived,” said Cummings.
Cummings met with Harruff, bringing the car seat with him so it could be examined.
What he learned affected him greatly. The little boy had died instantly at the scene. The pulse felt by the medic as they boarded the helicopter had been a false pulse. The baby boy had died due to improper use of a car seat.
“And that was the turning point,” said Cummings. He pauses, emotions still raw even after all this time.
“I had a pretty hard time with it for a long time,” remembers Cummings.
He had conversations with Sheriff Rick Bart, along with his immediate superior Green who both recognized his struggle. They asked him what he wanted to do next.
“I said, ‘I don’t want it to happen again,’” said Cummings.
Given full support from the Sheriff’s office, Cummings redoubled his efforts in learning everything he could about child passenger safety, partnering with Kruger until he became adept at teaching the safety curriculum and began speaking about it at conferences and training seminars to various law enforcement agencies.
Cummings remembers the conferences.
“We basically had a box at the door where you checked your ego in, and your rank,” described Cummings. He presented his testimony, experience and expertise to chiefs, captains, state patrol commanders, sheriffs and brand new officers.
“We were all under one umbrella, focused in an intense effort to stop people from getting killed on our highways,” said Cummings.
He became the first nationally-certified law enforcement instructor for child passenger safety in the state of Washington. He holds multiple certifications in occupant protection and holds both state and national certifications in child passenger safety.
He often gave emotional testimony in regards to his experience with the baby boy who had died in Startup in 1996.
“Somebody once told me after a conference that the count was 430 crying cops in one room,” said Cummings.
Kathy Kruger, who is still with Washington State Safety Restraint Coalition serving as executive director, recalled working with Cummings during intense endeavors in Olympia, where they worked with a woman named Autumn Skeen to get stronger laws passed in regards to child passenger safety requirements.
“I think the man walks on water,” said Kruger.
Cummings had met Skeen at aLifesavers National Conference, and went to Kruger, telling her that they needed to help.
“John sat down with his ability, which I have always totally admired, to listen with his full being to this woman about her loss,” remembered Kruger.
Skeen had lost her four-year-old son in a vehicle rollover accident. She had followed Washington state law, using a seatbelt to secure her young son during a trip to Eastern Washington. The seatbelt was much too large to hold the little boy in place, and he was thrown from the vehicle.The seatbelt remained fastened, but her child was gone.
In 2000, Kruger and Cummings traveled to Olympia in an effort to get a new law passed which required the use of booster seats for children who had outgrown car seats but remained too small to be effectively restrained by seatbelts.
This law, which passed in 2002, is known as Anton’s Law, named after Autumn Skeen’s son.
Cummings spoke before both the state Senate and the House of Representatives Transportation Committees. He used Kruger’s then six-year-old granddaughter as a part of his demonstration, which showed people why seatbelts do not adequately fit children and how booster seats can make the life-or-death difference during an accident.
“My granddaughter remembers him with great fondness because of his handlebar mustache,” said Kruger.
Kruger feels that Cummings’ testimony was instrumental in assuring the success of Anton’s Law.
He made it something they could recognize, said Kruger.
Cummings also had significant influence on the passing of Washington State’s primary seatbelt law.
Cummings remained a passionate advocate for child passenger safety throughout his entire 23 1/2 year career with the Sheriff’s office, and due to his contributions, Snohomish County holds the title for the longest-running child passenger safety program within a law enforcement agency in the state.
“Not too many departments can claim that,” said Cummings.
Cummings himself is the longest-running law enforcement officer instructor. Current for two more years, he will have a total of 21 years in child passenger safety when it’s all said and done.
In addition to instructing law enforcement agencies on all aspects of child safety, Cummings frequently taught the community. He participated in classes, safety fairs and corporate safety events.He traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada as an instructor.
Cummings was the main point of contact for assisting the general public with the installation and use of car seats.If a person called him and couldn’t understand what he was telling them over the phone, he would even make house calls, fully supported by the Sheriff’s office.
He was once asked by his supervisor, Lieutenant Tom Green, what his goal was as far as child passenger safety.
“Whenever anybody in this country has a question about car seats, seatbelts or motor vehicle safety, I want the phone on the fourth floor to ring,” said Cummings.
He was referring to the fourth floor of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office. It was a goal he achieved.
And even after his remarkable career and many honors, the retired deputy is not yet sure what he wants to be when he grows up. He is currently working at Lowe’s Hardware in Monroe.
“I’d be tickled to death to put washers on rivets for 10 hours a day at Boeing,” said Cummings.