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Are Seattle Daycares Prepared For The Big One?

For parents in the Seattle area, the idea of a big earthquake is scary enough. But what happens if a disaster strikes when your children are in daycare?

State law requires child care centers train their staff – and children in their care – in what to do in an emergency.

But a KUOW analysis has found that some daycare centers are out of compliance year after year – even in the Seattle neighborhoods most vulnerable to earthquake.

KUOW looked at the annual inspection reports for 73 child care centers in and around the Seattle neighborhoods most vulnerable to earthquake – including parts of West Seattle, Queen Anne, downtown and University Village. We found that 68 percent of those centers were in violation of at least one disaster planning rule in their most recent inspection.

Some could not show proof that their staff was trained in what to do in an emergency. Others lacked evidence of monthly fire drills. At some centers, emergency telephone numbers or fire escape routes were missing. Many centers had multiple violations.

Repeat Violations

Frank Ordway is the assistant director of the state Department of Early Learning, which inspects child care centers to ensure compliance with emergency preparedness laws.

He said that a licensor who visits a center looks for proof of completed fire and earthquake drills, emergency signage, contact information for parents, and proof that staff and parents have signed the emergency plan.

"They do a very thorough check to ensure that all of the elements are in place, and not just in place, but actually ready to be actionable by a provider,” Ordway said.

If an inspector finds a violation, the daycare center gets 30 days to fix the problem. "If they’re missing a plan, if the plan isn’t updated, if it’s clear that no training has been done, we work with those centers to remediate those problems and get them back on track," Ordway said.

But of the daycare centers KUOW looked at, nearly one-third had the same disaster planning violations on their last two inspections. Some had the same violations for three inspections in a row.

None of those centers answered or returned our calls – except one.

The director of that center, which was found in violation of four different disaster planning laws in its most recent inspection, declined an interview request. She said parents are already nervous enough about leaving their children at daycare and what would happen to their children in a disaster.

March 8 marks 50 years since one such deadly disaster. Three Seattle children died and four more were critically injured when a family home daycare in Leschi caught fire. Public outcry following the incident led to tougher state oversight of child care – at least on paper.

Today, if a child care center still hasn’t corrected a violation in 30 days, the state can issue a civil penalty. Repeated violations can land a center on probation or lead to revocation of its license.

Despite the laws, and the repeated violations KUOW found at many centers, in the past year the state has not sanctioned a single child care center for a disaster planning violation.

KUOW sent the Department of Early Learning a list of the centers we found with the same violations for three inspections in a row. A spokeswoman for the DEL responded that it would take an in-depth audit of each center’s inspection history to determine why they had never been penalized.

‘Particularly Vulnerable’

Emergency preparedness is especially important at daycare centers, according to pediatrician David Schonfeld, who directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. He has worked on disasters in schools from Newtown, Conn., to New Orleans.

"Children of [daycare] age are particularly vulnerable in the sense that they need adult assistance and support to understand what’s happened and even just to get out when there's a fire or natural disaster," Schonfeld said.

As crucial as it is for daycares to be ready for major disasters, Schonfeld said, emergency planning is much more likely to be useful during a smaller crisis, like a gas leak, electrical fire or an accident at the center.

"Medical emergencies and other accidents and injuries are actually not that uncommon with young children," Schonfeld said. "When you put large numbers of them together that just increases the odds that one of those children are going to have a problem."

So why do so many daycare centers drop the ball on disaster planning?

Schonfeld said there are probably a few reasons. "It’s a profession that tends to be staffed by people who care a great deal about children and are trying to do their best with somewhat limited resources," he said.

Although daycare tuition can run upward of $2,000 a month, Schonfeld said centers tend to operate with such small margins that it can be hard to find the staff time for training.

He said another issue is denial.

"We’d like to think something like this wouldn’t happen to very young children. That’s a kind of naive view to think that it never can happen," Schonfeld said.

Getting Good Marks

At Green Tree Early Childhood Center in downtown Seattle, preschoolers are engrossed in their floor puzzles when all of a sudden a teacher shouts, "OK, Pre-K – drop!"

These 4- and 5-year-olds do this earthquake drill every month, and it shows. They cheerfully crawl under a long table and grab a hold of its legs as a teacher rattles the tabletop.

"The earth is shaking! Ooooh! Cover your head! Hold on to a table!” the teacher calls out, then leads the class in rounds of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and the alphabet song so the kids stay calm and focused.

After the all-clear is given, the kids meet back at the puzzle rug for a hip-hip-hooray.

Green Tree director Cathy Prygrocki said at this center a lot of thinking goes into being ready for an earthquake or other disaster. "Anything that’s going to fall down is secured," she said, from bookshelves to the hermit crab tank.

Green Tree gets good marks for disaster planning.

There are evacuation cribs with wheels to cart out a bunch of babies in a hurry. In one restroom, a bathtub has been re-purposed as a storage area for the required three days’ worth of water, kept in plastic-lined cardboard boxes fitted with spigots.

Prygrocki said she used to live in California and knows what it’s like to be in an earthquake. She said a big one is her worst fear.

"I can’t imagine being here for three days with frightened children and frightened staff. I worry that it’ll happen when I’m not here. But then I’m worried that it’ll happen when I am here, too," she laughed wryly.

Prygrocki said one thing makes her feel better: annual training with her staff.

So what can make parents feel better about disaster preparedness at their child care centers? "I think the first thing is parents should inform themselves and find out what has been done within their daycare center to prepare for a disaster," said Schonfeld.

He recommends that parents ask how they can help their child care provider be more prepared.

Parents can also research how prepared the Department of Early Learning found child care centers in their most recent inspections at the state's Child Care Check website.

Wondering what kind of risk your daycare center faces in a natural disaster? Look up the address on this online tool from the city Office of Emergency Management.

We’d like to hear your thoughts about disaster planning at your daycare center. Email education reporter Ann Dornfeld at

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