When Sherri Gilliland shows up at a client's house, she often starts with a close inspection of the toilet bowls.
"Toilets can be very dangerous," she says.
That is, if you stand 2 feet tall, have an inquisitive disposition and are adroit at clambering up on chairs and toilet bowls. In short, toilets should be off limits to your average roving toddler, says Ms. Gilliland.
The Columbia resident is making a profession out of toddler safety in the home -- the most likely place she says for children to be injured.
Her fledgling business, Protect A Tot, sells and installs safety devices -- everything from electrical outlet protectors to stove top guards, designed to foil inquisitive toddlers. As for those toilet bowls, the Columbia-based business carries two different kinds of clamps that keep the toilet lid closed.
"The very best protection for a child is supervision," says Ms. Gilliland. "But, of course, it's just not possible to have your eye on your kids every single minute. People don't realize how fast an accident can happen."
Although she doesn't have children of her own, Ms. Gilliland has her own experience to speak of. When she was 3 years old she took a tumble down the basement stairs of her parents' home and ended up with three stiches in her forehead for a nasty gash.
Among her best-selling items are the various gates and deck netting available which prevent toddlers from a wandering out of rooms, down stairs or off the back deck. Another big seller is an electrical outlet plate with spring-loaded covers. She doesn't carry the plastic covers that snap into outlets. "Kids figure out how to get them off pretty easily," she says.
Ms. Gilliland aims to beat the competition -- mostly mail order houses specializing in child and home safety equipment and large hardware and home improvement stores such as Hechinger's -- in both pricing and service.
Chris Bradford, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, says the commission publishes several child safety manuals which explain devices parents can purchase and install to child proof their homes.
"It doesn't take a magician to install a lot of these items," he said.
Ms. Gilliland says she's not out to compete with the do-it-your-selfers, but . . .
"There's a lot of very good equipment available that can prevent an accident from happening with a child. But a hardware store or a mail order catalog won't come install it for you and they won't be able to tell you about the danger spots you haven't noticed. I offer the free safety evaluation and education."
Along with the free home evaluation, Ms. Gilliland provides customers with educational brochures, such as one which outlines common potential hazard spots for kids in homes and a leaflet listing poisonous plants commonly grown by homeowners.
She also advises customers to get down on their hands and knees in the rooms of their home to get a view of the world as their children see it.
While most adults are well aware that the kitchen has its dangers for children, few seem to realize the pitfalls of bathrooms and fireplaces.
Ms. Gilliland, a former spokeswoman for a company that sells personal and home crime protection equipment, launched her business in the spring of 1992 after searching around for five years for a business she could manage on her own.
"I was looking for a business that I felt would make a noticeable difference in people's lives," Ms. Gilliland says. "I'd get calls from people all the time who had been our customers asking if we carried any safety devices for kids. I had to tell them we didn't at the time, but I started to compile a list of these people with the idea that maybe one day I'd start a business in the child safety field."
Opportunity knocked at a business show in Baltimore last year. Child Safety International, a California-based firm, was looking for people to set up dealerships in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Ms. Gilliland had already done her research on the demographics of the area and signed on for a dealership covering Howard and Anne Arundel counties. To stir up her first customers, she contacted some of the people on the list she had compiled while with the crime protection company and placed advertisements in Baltimore's Child and Chesapeake Child, regional publications focusing on families with children.
Today, the majority of Protect A Tot's customers are from from Columbia and Ellicott City in Howard, and Annapolis, Arnold and Severna Park in Anne Arundel County. She averages 20 customers monthly. Most potential customers are referred by other customers or learn about her service at free child safety seminars she conducts for area Lamaze groups and mothers' clubs.
She also stirs up business by distributing to area offices a brochure outlining potential dangers to children in the home.
After conducting a free inspection, Ms. Gilliland writes up a recommendation for equipment that would would make the home safer. Some items are low cost. One-piece door bumpers cost $1.50 each; the kind most often found in homes have a cap which children can remove and swallow.
Customers can then either buy items from her inventory and install them on their own, or have Protect A Tot install the equipment. Ms. Gilliland has a coterie of carpenters which she contracts with for installations.
Virtually all of the people who have requested surveys of their homes for child proofing, have followed through with orders for equipment or installation, says Ms. Gilliland. About 70 percent of her customers request that Protect A Tot install the equipment.
"Most of my customers are first-time parents. They are feeling overwhelmed with adjusting to the demands of parenting and the last thing they have time for is installing equipment around the house. And usually it's the woman I'm dealing with and they are apt to say, 'my husband says he can install this stuff but I know he may never get around to it.' "
Protect A Tot's average cost for equipment and installation is $200 to $300.
That cost runs higher for customized items, such as fireplace bumper guards, which prevent injury should a child fall and hit the step edge of a hearth. A custom-fitted fireplace guard might run as much as $130, says Ms. Gilliland.
If the price tag is too steep, Ms. Gilliland recommends cheaper equipment or even simpler safety options, such as using pillows to cover sharp edges.
"I try to give a customer as many options as possible. After all the goal of what I'm doing is protecting the child."