Fifty children evacuated a smoke-filled bus, crouching low and grabbing onto the seats to find their way to the back door.

"I couldn't see my hands!" one boy exclaimed. "That was scary!" said another.

It was all a drill, with a machine pumping out plumes to simulate a real fire, part of a two-day safety camp held last week by the Anoka County Sheriff's Office at the ­Andover Community Center.

Safe Kids Anoka County, a group that works to reduce accidental injuries in children ages 1 to 14, helped put together the camp. It covered everything from preventing brain injuries to Internet safety. Other local agencies have planned similar safety camps in the coming weeks.

The group, part of the state and national Safe Kids USA network, also hosts bike helmet and car seat clinics along with other educational programs. Today it is offering a bike helmet clinic and sale at the Anoka County Sheriff's Office in Andover from 4 to 7 p.m.

Laura Landes, a crime prevention coordinator for the Sheriff's Office who works with Safe Kids Anoka County, said its top priority is education.

"We don't want people to live in fear. We want them to know the facts and the right responses," she said.

At its bike helmet clinics, Safe Kids Anoka County encourages families to come with all members' helmets. "We do education on what the proper fit looks like and feels like," she said.

For those who don't have the right size, the group offers helmets for sale.

She stressed the importance of bike helmets, which the group's website says can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Shelly Crawford, a pediatric nurse at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, added, "There can be distracted drivers, and how many bikers would they hit if they were texting or talking on the phone?"

Another issue is "kids trying to text and ride bikes at the same time, or longboard. We're seeing quite a few injuries," said Crawford, who co-chairs the Safe Kids Anoka County.

Thanks in part to her involvement with the group, Crawford has always required her children to wear bike helmets. It has already paid off in a big way.

Her 9-year-old son, Shae, was in an accident last year. He broke his nose and cracked his helmet in half. Without the helmet, "The doctor said he probably wouldn't have made it," Crawford said.

In a presentation about preventing brain injuries at safety camp, Shae showed the split in his helmet and pictures of him just after the accident.

"We tell kids that … you can't get a brain transplant. You can't live without your brain," Crawford said.

Car passenger safety

The leading causes of accidental injury deaths for children ages 1-14 in Minnesota are car accidents, suffocation and drowning, while falls, bicycle accidents and poisoning cause the most injuries seen in hospitals/emergency rooms for ages 0-14, according to the group.

As such, child passenger safety is a priority for Safe Kids Anoka County. Besides public speaking on the issue, the group offers car seat clinics with nationally trained technicians throughout the year. The next one is scheduled for Aug. 13 at the Ramsey Fire Station.

Many car seats are installed incorrectly, or people turn them around to face the driver too early in a child's life, before he or she has grown enough, she said.

It takes about a half-hour to check out a car seat, and people can make appointments to have them inspected outside of the clinic dates, she said.

These days more grandparents are taking advantage of the service. "It's great to see. We used to hear people say, 'I never had kids in car seats.' Now they're calling us for appointments. Things have changed since they had children," she said.

Staying on top of trends

The group tries to pay attention to trends. For example, it's seeing more "co-sleeping deaths rising, and this time of year the heartbreaking stories of children being left in hot cars. We have plans to address both of these topics," she said, adding, "We don't wait for someone to tell us there's a problem. We try to get in front of it."

For example, in response to a March case in which a man was accused of filming young boys in the locker rooms at a YMCA, Safe Kids Anoka County brought in an expert from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center to lead a presentation called, "Protecting your children in an unsafe world."

Later this year, the group hopes to take the presentation to a broader audience, possibly through area community education departments, Landes said.

Chandra Kreyer, a co-chair of the group who works in crime prevention at the Ramsey Police Department, said, "We talk about what else can be an unintentional injury, not just the most obvious things.

"Some can be personal with people. We want children to recognize when they're in an unsafe situation and how to respond appropriately."

For more information on the Safe Kids program, go to

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.