'Accidents do happen': Calgary parents whose son fell out a window share their story

With warm weather in the forecast this long weekend, Calgarians are being reminded just how dangerous an open window or balcony can be for young kids.

In the past year, Alberta Health Services (AHS) says 39 children were brought to Calgary's Alberta Children’s Hospital or Edmonton's Stollery Children’s Hospital after falling from a window or balcony.

It's with that in mind that two Calgary parents have decided to share the heartbreaking experience they had when their child fell out of a second-floor window in their Cranston home.

"I don't want any other child or any other parent to go through that," said Kanika Sharma.

She says it was a hot July day last year when her four-year-old her son Vihan climbed onto the window sill in her bedroom and fell through the mesh screen onto the concrete below.

The family took him to the nearby South Health Campus hospital, but he was soon transferred to Alberta Children's hospital to be treated for head injuries and broken bones.

After three weeks, he was sent home, and has since made a near total recovery.

"Forever, for the rest of my life, I will be grateful to do the doctors and the nurses," said Sharma.

She and her husband Kshitij want other families and guardians to beware of the dangers open windows can pose.

"Accidents do happen, trust me, they can happen," he said. "We all love our kids, we all try and monitor them, but these are those 30 seconds or one minute where kids are just exploring themselves."

"Kids have big heads and little bodies so when they fall, they often will hit their head," said Dr. Jonathan Guilfoyle, an emergency physician at Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH), and trauma-lead for southern Alberta.

"Those head injuries can range from minor to sometimes devastating."

CHANGES TO THE NATIONAL BUILDING CODE OF CANADA 

For many years, AHS and the City of Calgary worked together to push for changes to prevent these types of injuries. As a result, the most recent additions to the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) include safer windows in newly-built single-family detached homes.  

The NBC, developed by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes and published by the National Research Council of Canada, sets out technical requirements for the design and construction of new buildings, as well as the alteration, change of use and demolition of existing ones.

The changes, which comes into effect in March of 2023, limit how much a window can open on the second storey of newly built single-detached homes.

"We really hope to see a reduction of incident of these falls for families that are building news homes," said Dr. Michelle Simonelli, ACH emergency physician and Director of the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRP).

Simonelli says 80 per cent of injuries as a result of falls from windows affect children under age five.

Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes chair Kevin Griffiths says the change is another step forward for building safety. 

"We’re pleased that the City of Calgary and Alberta Health Services initiated this change and it’s an example of the positive impact that participating in the code development process can have on Canadians coast-to-coast."

Prior to the recommended building code changes, there were no restrictions for single-detached homes on how much a second-storey window could open or how close to the finished floor an openable window could be positioned.

The city says there were also no guidelines about installing devices that permanently restrict window openings for single-detached homes.

Now, a single-detached home with an openable window that is 182 centimetres (six feet) or more above ground, must be installed at least 91 centimetres (three feet) from the finished floor, be protected by a guard, or have a device in place to limit how much the window can open.

The code changes are not a retroactive requirement so existing windows may not have these safety features.

"While these changes will ensure a safer future, the risk of falls remain very real, especially during spring and summer,” said Ulrik Seward, City of Calgary chief building official.

"Guards and window opening control device hardware are available, which are an easy way to restrict the opening of your existing second-storey windows and minimize the risk of accidental falls."

TIPS FOR KEEPING KIDS SAFE

Toddlers and preschoolers are at highest risk of falling from a window or balcony, but AHS warns it can happen at any age.

  • Parents and guardians are encouraged to take the following safety precautions:  
  • Remember, screens are not strong enough to keep children in;
  • Install window guards on all windows on the second floor and above. These act like gates in front of windows;
  • Consider installing safety devices that limit the distance to which a window can open to a maximum of 10 centimetres (four inches);
  • Safety devices should be able to release quickly in case of an emergency;
  • Ensure your balcony’s vertical railings are not more than 10 centimetres (four inches) apart;
  • Move furniture such as cribs, beds, stools and change tables away from windows to prevent access to the windows; and
  • Remember that furniture and other items stored on balconies and decks can be used to climb, resulting in a fall over a railing; it’s best to remove these if you have children at home.