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Bay area operators use caution with bounce houses and slides

They're staples at county fairs, children's birthday parties and — at least in the Tampa Bay area — pools and beachfront resorts.

But a rash of increasingly serious accidents involving bounce houses and inflatable slides around the county has left some wondering just how safe the popular amusements are.

Rideaccidents.com, a website cataloguing accidents on amusement rides, has documented 10 separate accidents involving inflatables in the past two months, with more than 40 injuries resulting from bounce houses or inflatable slides collapsing or blowing away in high winds. None has been reported in the Tampa Bay area, but that doesn't mean operators aren't erring on the side of caution.

"If winds exceed 15 to 25 miles per hour, then (a bounce house) needs to drop down," said Colleen Gentile, whose company, Tampa Bay Bounce based in Riverview, specializes in inflatable ride rentals. "If we have units out and see the weather has become blustery, we will call the customer and deflate it."

She said she's had to deal with her fair share of angry customers as a result, but tells parents she's merely "operating in the best interest of the kids."

The most recent accident involving an inflatable occurred in Oceanside, N.Y., last weekend, where several inflatable rides took to the skies during high winds at a soccer tournament in the Long Island town. Most escaped with bumps and bruises, but a 36-year-old mother was critically injured when one of the inflatables landed on her.

Jim Barber, the communications chairman of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials based in Brandon, said similar accidents "happen all the time" because inflatables are often not properly installed or inflated.

"When you look at them inflated, they look benign, soft, squishy," he said. "If it isn't installed and used in accordance with manufacturers' standards, then we'll continue to have these types of accidents."

Gentile says inflatables should be stuck to the ground with metal stakes rather than held down by sandbags, and she'll refuse to rent to a location if there isn't a possibility of securing at least one corner to the ground.

Her company has never had an accident, she said.

"We stick to quality units and industry standards. And our customers follow the rules," she said.

But while Gentile's company adheres to standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials, they're not required by law to do so — Florida has no law on the books regulating bounce houses and other inflatables.

Allan Harrison, bureau chief of Florida's Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection, said the bureau inspects all mechanical rides at fairs, but inflatables are specifically exempt in their statutes.

"I don't know why, but the Legislature exempted it," he said. "It's up to the companies to regulate. People just don't know how to use them."

At Northwest Swimming Pool in St. Petersburg on Friday afternoon, children slid and bounced down a three-story inflatable water slide while their parents watched from picnic tables.

"Obviously we think it's okay, if we're letting our children on it," said Joyce Muchong. While she wasn't worried about her 8-year-old son's safety, she did warn him to avoid pulling any tricks, she said — she'd seen other kids trying to run down the slide.

"They seem like they're a little lax," she said. "There's one at TradeWinds, and it's a lot more supervised."

The slide has been operating since Memorial Day. The city plans to add a second inflatable slide in three weeks at Lake Vista Pool, said Gretchen Tenbrock, the city's recreation manager.

At the back of the slide, Garwin Redman, the operations manager for Rip Slide, the Orlando-based company that owns the slide, gave kids the run-down: Wait your turn. Don't run. Don't slide until the coast is clear.

"The last rule: Never break my rules," he grinned. "That's Marine Corps 101."

Redman said the company is becoming "the McDonald's of three-story inflatable slides," and that more than 400 resorts around the world are on the waiting list for a Rip Slide. He said the slides are safe in winds up to 35 mph, and air bags inside allow riders seven minutes to get off the slide if it begins to collapse.

"The community's responded warmly, which is always nice," he said. "And it gets kids off the XBox 360 and the PlayStation."

The Associated Press and staff writer Biz Carson contributed to this report. Aubrey Whelan can be reached at awhelan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8316.

>> fast facts

Safety tips

• Make sure the inflatable is secured with metal stakes, not sandbags.

• Don't allow larger children into a bounce house with smaller children.

• If winds exceed 15 to

25 mph, take the inflatable down.

•Make sure children are supervised at all times.

Bay area operators use caution with bounce houses and slides 06/12/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 12, 2011 10:12pm]
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