“If a mom locks her keys in the car and calls 911 right away, we’re not going to cite them for reckless endangerment or any kind of criminal intent,” said Kim Kapp, public information coordinator for the Vancouver Police Department.
The penalty for intentionally leaving a child unattended in a car can run the gamut from a misdemeanor violation to felony criminal mistreatment. A pet owner can be cited for a class 2 civil infraction for confining an animal in a space where it could be harmed by heat, cold, lack of ventilation or lack of water.
According to state law, any animal control or law officer who believes an animal is suffering or is likely to suffer harm can legally enter a vehicle “by any means reasonable under the circumstances, if no other person is present in the immediate area who has access to the vehicle,” states RCW 16.52.340.
Can you break a car window? It depends.
“It’s not likely the police officer is going to cite the person who breaks a window to get the baby out of the car,” Kapp said. “However, the statute does not protect the person from any kind of civil action.”
In other words, Kapp said, a police officer would not foist criminal charges on someone who made a good-faith effort to save a child or animal’s life. The vehicle owner, though, could still seek damages.
“If you break my car window out to try to save my child, could I sue you for the property damage incurred? I could. Would I win? I’m not sure,” Kapp said.
Across the Columbia River, rules guiding good Samaritans are more clearly defined. Last year’s Oregon House Bill 2732 stated a person who entered a vehicle “by force or otherwise, to remove a child or domestic animal left unattended in the motor vehicle is not subject to criminal or civil liability” if the situation meets certain criteria: if there’s no way for the child or animal to exit the vehicle without assistance, if entry is necessary to end imminent danger, if the person alerts law enforcement or emergency services before or immediately after entry, if no excessive force is used and if the person remains in a nearby, safe location with the car’s occupant until further help arrives.
In both states, the best course of action is to try to find the owner of the vehicle while simultaneously calling 911, Kapp said. Passers-by should not try to forcibly enter a car unless there’s a clear danger to the occupants and little chance of first responders making it to the scene in time.
How hot can it get?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a car can turn into a dangerous greenhouse even in mild 70-degree weather. Within 10 minutes, the inside of the vehicle will be around 89 degrees — in another 10 minutes, the interior temperature hits 99 degrees. By the end of the hour, the inside of the car jumps to 113 degrees.
In the type of weather seen in Clark County over the past week, the danger rises along with the mercury. A dog left in a car during 90-degree weather will experience a 109-degree temperature after 10 minutes. Within an hour, the car’s interior will hit 133 degrees.
Weather above 90 degrees is unusual for Vancouver, though not unheard of.
“It’s not out of the question, especially when we’re going into the later part of July,” said David Bishop, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Portland office.
With records going back to 1895, the hottest July day in Vancouver is a tie between July 11, 1961, and July 10, 2007 — both hit 104 degrees.
Over the same period, the average daily high temperature for July was 79.2 degrees, and the average overall temperature was 67 degrees, Bishop said. This month, the average daily high has been 83.7 degrees.
Vancouver residents can enjoy a short respite before the heat picks up again, he added.
“It’s looking like we’re going to get a little bit of a cooldown for this weekend, temperatures going back down to the upper 80s or so,” Bishop said. “As it sits right now — because these things have a tendency to change — as we start getting into Monday and Tuesday, it looks like things are going to start warming back up a little bit.”
Early forecasts call for a high of 91 degrees Sunday, 95 on Monday and 94 on Tuesday.
In the meantime, take precautions to avoid heat stroke or dehydration, said Dr. Tam Vuong.
Vuong, an emergency medical physician at Vancouver’s Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, encourages people to drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, wear a high-SPF sunblock and seek air conditioning whenever possible. He also urged everyone to watch their urine output in the heat — using the restroom less than every four or five hours is a sign of dehydration.
“The biggest thing we worry about is dehydration,” Vuong said. “They’re having a lot of sweating, very thirsty, very light-headed, dizzy. … People sometimes can even pass out.”
Friday through Sunday, the Legacy Salmon Creek emergency department treated five patients for sun- or heat-related issues — two on Friday, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, said Kelly Love, the hospital’s public and community relations officer.
In deciding whether to seek professional care, the threshold will be different for a young, healthy person than for an elderly person or somebody already suffering from another medical issue exacerbated by the temperature.
“You get dehydrated from the heat, but if you’re sick with a stomach bug or a cold, you could get dehydrated a lot quicker,” Vuong said.