THE PLAYFUL WORLD of inflatable amusements is becoming a more serious game.
The twin problems of rising accident rates and a crisis in securing insurance coverage are putting the squeeze on party rental operators who offer moon bounces, slides and the like. The result is a wave of new regulations on inflatables, and a growing movement among operators to shape their own future.
One of the first states to get tough on inflatables was New Jersey. Responding to an accident history that “convinced us that it wasn't just the operation of the rides that needed to be inspected, but the design of the rides,” according to state official Bill Connolly, New Jersey in 2002 authorized the nation's first ride design code.
All rides, including inflatables, used or installed in the state must be inspected and certified; inflatables must meet wind-anchorage and combustibility requirements. Operators pay $200 a year for an operating permit, and must share their schedule of installations with state officials. “We hit about 50 percent of the setups” for safety inspections, Connolly notes. “And they don't know which half of the time we're coming.”
More-sweeping regulations are due this month, when West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International, one of the largest voluntary standards development organizations in the world, plans to issue its Standard F24, which includes a section devoted to inflatables. While ASTM standards themselves don't carry the weight of law, they may be referenced in laws or contracts. The text of F24 should be available on the ASTM Web site mid-June.
Although the agency will not release specifics of F24 until it is published, industry representatives who helped draft the standard tell Special Events Magazine that it includes specifications on inflatables' design, anchoring system, fire-resistance, fabric strength (to make sure that inflatables don't shred in windy weather) and blower guards (to safeguard against the dangers of unintended deflation).
F24 is “the highest standard we know of” for inflatables, according to safety consultant Paul Zellar, head of Zellar Consulting, Flower Mound, Texas. Zellar served on the volunteer committee that drafted F24. And plenty of inflatables operators will be covered when the standard is finally published: “There are over 30 states that reference ASTM for amusement rides,” he says.
The drive to improve inflatables safety is coming not just from regulators, but from manufacturers as well. June Hardin, president of inflatables manufacturer Wapello Fabrication of Wapello, Iowa, volunteered to head the committee to draft ASTM's F24 because “the business has grown so terribly fast and is so very lucrative, people have forgotten to use their heads,” she says.
Although any new requirements are bound to irk some members of both the manufacturer and operator camps, Hardin sees stricter safety standards as inevitable. “Let's face it — it would be easier if you simply didn't have any rules, but that isn't how it works,” she notes. “If you're not buying a product that's safe to use and has an owner's manual so you can follow the rules to operate it, then it has a snowball effect. Then nobody can sell the products and nobody can use them. Legal problems cause insurance problems, and my customer can't buy insurance now.”
HEAR US ROAR
One faction of the operator segment isn't waiting for regulation to change the way it does business; it is tackling that responsibility. In December, ROAR — Responsible Operators of Amusement Rentals — was launched as the newest chapter of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, based in Winter Park, Fla.
“Just about every state is starting to look at bringing in some regulation on inflatables,” notes Mark Zientek, ROAR chairman and president of South Amboy, N.J.-based New Jersey Partyworks. “We want to be proactive, setting the standard in the industry.”
ROAR is working aggressively to promote higher safety standards among its members through regular meetings and a newsletter. The group is also working with an actuary to compile better statistics on inflatables, Zientek says, with an eye toward bringing more insurers into the marketplace or creating a captive or risk retention group.
In the British Isles, the Performance Textiles Association (PERTEXA), Staffordshire, England, plans to launch its Inflatable Play Accreditation program July 1. The aim is to have all inflatable play equipment serial-numbered and recorded in a central database within one year, according to association officials. Every inflatable will be tagged with a unique security code so that anyone can check on the inspection status of any inflatable at any time via the Internet. The goal is to have all inflatables safety-certified by industry-based inspection officials by June 30, 2005.
Some operators are holding their noses while supporting new regulations. “We all know in this business that there has never been an inflatable that has caught fire, or can catch fire,” says John Elio, president of New York-based C&C Amusements and a ROAR founder. “One inflatable manufacturer in Texas attempted many different ways to burn a regular inflatable without fire retardancy — even using a blowtorch — and could not ignite it.”
Yet many believe that tougher standards will ultimately protect the business. “Insurance companies are in business to make money, and we did our best to make sure they did not,” Elio says. “We at ROAR saw this coming and had to start somewhere to bring this unregulated, un-ruled industry back from the brink.”
ARA Insurance Services, 800/821-6580; ASTM International, 610/832-9500; C&C Amusements, 718/515-6753; New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, 609/984-7974; New Jersey Partyworks, 732/727-4342; PERTEXA, +44 1827 52337; Wapello Fabrication, 319/523-8371; Zellar Consulting, 972/355-1967
Making Wise Buys
ARA Insurance Services suggests thinking through these questions before purchasing an inflatable ride:
- How long has the manufacturer been in business?
- Did the manufacturer use material that will meet minimum ASTM standards?
- Does the ride have permanently attached warning labels and safety instructions?
- What tests for design and safety did the manufacturer run on the ride?
- Does the manufacturer provide maintenance instructions?
- Does the manufacturer carry product liability coverage of at least $1 million with an “A” rated carrier?
- Do you know the rules and regulations governing the operation of inflatable amusement rides in your state?
- Do you know where you and your employees can receive formal training on the safe operation of the ride?
- Are you able to train your customer on safe use and supervision of the ride?
- Do you have an emergency plan in place and included as part of your operator training?
- Do you understand that the rights of a child to sue you for injuries cannot be waived through your rental contract?
- Do you know what associations or amusement industry sources are available to stay current on trends and safety issues regarding inflatable products?
- Do you pick up the ride immediately after the rental event ends?