Every morning at 7 a.m., four hours before Roaring Springs Water Park opens its gates, an aquatics technician roams the 15-acre park looking for safety issues at each of the 15 attractions.
“They really get in there with flashlights and run their hands along the seams,” said Ashley Wolfe, the Meridian park’s operations manager. “They’re physically touching the slide and inspecting it.”
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Water- and amusement-park safety is on people’s minds since 10-year-old Caleb Schwab died from injuries he suffered Sunday while riding on the 168-foot-tall Verruckt (German for “insane”) at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan. The nation saw its fourth amusement park accident in five days when a 3-year-old boy fell from a roller coaster Thursday in Ligonier, Pa.
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Idaho does not require safety inspections for water- or other amusement parks or carnival rides, meaning park owners and operators of traveling carnivals are responsible for inspecting their rides. Only electrical inspections are required by state law.
“The only time we would inspect them would be for the electrical component and only at the time of initial connection to the grid,” said Bill Hatch, spokesman for the Idaho Division of Building Safety.
Roaring Springs is the only large commercial water park in the Treasure Valley. The Silverwood Theme Park north of Coeur d’Alene also has water rides.
Wolfe said Roaring Springs inspectors take as long as they need each day to make sure the rides are safe. “We want to make sure it’s done correctly,” she said.
The Verruckt, designed by one of the Kansas park’s owners, opened in 2014 and was certified as the world’s tallest water ride by Guinness World Records. The rafts start out at a height higher than the Statue of Liberty and reach speeds up to 70 mph during an initial 17-story drop. Then they rise and descend on a hump and stop in a shallow pool.
Few details have been released on how Caleb died. He was riding in a raft with two women unrelated to him. He was found in a pool at the end of the ride. Police said he died of a neck injury and authorities said he was decapitated. The two women suffered minor facial injuries.
Wolfe and Tiffany Quilici, Roaring Springs’ marketing director, stressed that water park’s attractions are family-friendly and are meant to be entertaining, not scary. They described the Verruckt as an “extreme thrill ride,” far different from anything offered at Roaring Springs.
“We don’t have anything even remotely in the same universe as that ride,” Quilici said.
Before the summer recreation season begins, inspectors at Roaring Springs, which first opened in 1999, ride each of their attractions 100 times to ensure they’re safe after sitting idle over the winter. A Florida aquatic safety and risk-management company, Jeff Ellis & Associates, sends inspectors unannounced three times a season to observe the slides, lifeguards and other employees, Wolfe said.
“We haven’t had any accidents that would cause us to question or change our safety procedures,” Quilici said. “It’s just an extremely safe park.”
Records showing emergency calls to the park by the Meridian Fire Department were not immediately available. Nor were court records on several personal injury lawsuits filed against the park.
Quilici declined to say how many times medical crews are called to the park to tend to injuries.
“We have an outstanding safety record according to both our insurance company and our risk management company,” she said.
The park has about 45 lifeguards — mostly high school and college students — on duty at a time. They receive instruction and certification through the same firm that inspects the park.
To be certified, lifeguards must pass a written exam and a hands-on test. They are tested throughout the season through emergency simulations that take place while the park is open, and the lifeguards aren’t told that the simulations are drills.
“We train our lifeguards to be rescue ready at all times,” Wolfe said.
Lifeguards ensure that riders meet height and weight requirements, and supervisors monitor the lifeguards to ensure they’re enforcing the regulations, Wolfe said.
The restrictions are set by ProSlide Technology, an Ottawa, Ontario, company that built all of Roaring Springs’ slides.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates how amusement rides are manufactured. The federal government, however, does not oversee how they are set up, maintained and operated. That’s left up to states, and the rules vary widely.
In Kansas, rides with a permanent location such as the Verruckt must be inspected annually. Schlitterbahn officials said they had the ride checked by a certified inspector once a year.
Amusement-ride inspectors must be certified by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. Silverwood Theme Park in the North Idaho town of Athol, which has carnival rides and water slides, employs 13 certified inspectors, according to an association roster.
A man suffered serious injuries at Silverwood in 2011 when he fell onto a roller coaster’s tracks while trying to board. The man lost his footing and fell five feet onto the tracks. He was knocked unconscious and later taken to a hospital for treatment.
Eleven states, including Oregon and Washington, have minimal inspection and insurance requirements. Six states, including Idaho’s neighbors Utah, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, have no regulations on amusement rides. Most rely on insurance companies to verify each ride has been inspected and is safe for use, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Safety at the Western Idaho Fair
The Western Idaho Fair, which opens Friday, Aug. 19, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 28, requires each of the rides from carnival operator Butler Amusements to be inspected. An independent inspector will begin work Tuesday and continue until the fair opens, Fair Director Bob Batista said.
The 45 rides that the company will bring to the Boise fair will also get inspected by Cal/OSHA, California’s safety agency, before they leave California and come to Idaho, he said. And Butler officials will inspect them every day of the fair.
Batista has worked with the Beaverton, Ore., company during his 17 years at the Western Idaho Fair and for two years before that in California. He described the family-run operation as safety-minded, and there have not been any safety issues at the fair.
“They’re, in my mind, one of the top-notch carnivals in the country,” Batista said. “You don’t stay in business if you cut corners, and they just don’t cut corners. They do everything in their power to make sure it’s done right and done safely.”
Still, the company has been involved in several mishaps over the years.
A 6-year-old boy fell 90 feet to his death in 2006 at the San Joaquin County Fair in California after he crawled out of a Ferris wheel gondola after being placed in the car by himself.
The company was fined $101,250 by Cal/OSHA in 2014 after a ride operator continued conducting rides after key bolts and cross bracing were removed from two rides at the Big Fresno Fair.
A man and woman were seriously injured in 2000 when a seat chain broke and they were thrown 50 feet from a ride at a church festival in San Jose, Calif. An inspector found that many of the chains on the ride were badly worn and that the ride operator was drunk.
Man hurt after thrown from Canyon County Fair ride
A man riding the Octopus was thrown off July 29 at the Canyon County Fair in Caldwell. The 50-year-old man had tried to stand up on the ride where occupants are required to remain seated.
He was treated for undisclosed injuries at a Boise hospital.
That ride was operated by Browns Amusements of Mesa, Ariz.
One more accident
The nation saw its fourth amusement park accident in five days when a 3-year-old boy fell from a roller coaster Thursday at the Idlewild and SoakZone amusement park in Ligonier, Pa., but was conscious before being flown to a Pittsburgh hospital in a medical helicopter, officials said.
There was no information available about the nature or extent of the boy’s injuries.
In the other recent accidents around the country, one child was killed, another suffered a brain injury and at least two others were hospitalized.