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Colorado amusement ride safety 'on lower end of regulation'

August 4, 2017 Updated: August 7, 2017 at 5:35 pm
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Campbell Grosteffon, bottom left, and her sister, Mackenzie, 10, spin on the Vertigo carnival ride Saturday, July 15, 2017, during the first day of the El Paso County Fair in Calhan, Colo. The fair runs through July 22. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include that the state Department of Labor required Colorado operators to discontinue Fire Ball and Freak Out rides following the Ohio accident.

A deadly accident on an amusement ride at the Ohio State Fair has prompted two Colorado counties to close similar rides and raised questions about lax ride regulation in the state.

"Colorado is definitely on the lower end of regulation, mostly because it relies on third party, not state inspectors," said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety consultant based in Virginia.

The concerns come as the Colorado State Fair prepares to open Aug. 25 in Pueblo with dozens of mobile amusement rides, though fair officials couldn't list what the rides are or whether any are similar to the Fireball ride that killed one person and injured seven last month in Ohio.

But Scott Narreau, program supervisor for the state's amusement ride inspections, said Colorado falls somewhere in the middle compared with other states.

"We do a great job with the resources we have," an inspection team of three people who also manage the explosives regulation, Narreau said.

Colorado amusement park rides are regulated by the state Department of Labor and Employment's Division of Oil and Public Safety. The state regulates fixed-site and traveling operators the same way, except a traveling operator must notify the state Labor Department of its expected location.

All ride operators must hold a state permit and perform one third-party inspection every 12 months on each ride device. Colorado's audit inspector reviews the inspection results, how the ride operates and its paperwork. Violations can lead to fines or a shutdown of the ride.

But Martin said the state's reliance on third-party inspectors, rather than state employees, is subpar.

"If an insurance company sends someone out to inspect a ride that they insure, don't you think the company has some interest in how well the inspection goes?" Martin said.

Said Narreau: "Unlike states in the East, we don't have the manpower to be looking at every ride," adding that he trusts his network of third-party inspectors.

Third-party inspectors in Colorado are mostly consultants - either freelancers or insurance company employees - who don't have to register with the state. They must be certified by either of four national accreditation courses, by a professional engineer in a related field, or by the state Labor Department.

Colorado reported 107 amusement ride injuries from 1999 to 2007.

But the accuracy of such reports hinges on state reporting requirements, which Colorado doesn't have, says Saferparks, a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent ride accidents through research and information sharing.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 30,900 emergency room visits were made for amusement attraction injuries in 2016.

The commission provides federal oversight of mobile amusement parks, not fixed-site parks. Much of the inspection protocol for both types of operators, however, is left up to the states.

Last week, the Boulder County Fair halted a ride similar to Ohio's deadly Fire Ball. The week before, the Arapahoe County Fair did the same with a ride called The Freak Out, after the state Labor Department notified permitted operators that they were required to shut down Fire Ball and Freak Out rides.

The director of Arapahoe County Open Spaces, Shannon Carter, told KMGH-TV that the Freak Out ride was dismantled early Friday "out of an abundance of caution and out of respect for the victims" in Ohio.

The ride had passed a state inspection. Carter said in depth safety checks will be done on the remaining rides at the county fair every day. Normally those are done once a month.

Colorado State Fair spokeswoman Christi Lightcap, meanwhile, said fair officials don't know what rides will be operating in Pueblo.

Crabtree Amusements Inc., which provides the rides for the State Fair, as well as Boulder and Arapahoe counties' fairs, couldn't be reached to say what rides it plans to bring to Colorado.

Martin said New Jersey and Pennsylvania have the best oversight of amusement rides. Both states require an inspection report on every ride to be submitted to the state's engineer specialist to ensure that its operating principles are sound.

"Each state is different. There is no consistency or uniformity, which makes the whole situation very volatile at times," said Martin, who owns KRM Consulting. "One result of that are incidents like the one in Ohio."

Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, disagreed.

Internationally recognized standards that certified inspectors are expected to follow provide the necessary oversight throughout the country, Johnson said.

"No carnival owner has any concerns with good regulatory oversight, and good, as in people who are qualified and understand amusement rides," Johnson said.

What Martin, sees, though, is a patchwork of oversight. And with no national database on registered operators, incident reports, injuries and fatalities, such fragmentation contributes to serious, sometimes fatal, amusement ride accidents, he said.

The state Labor Department keeps a list of operators registered in Colorado, including Crabtree, on its website. But Martin and Narreau both cited Saferparks as the most reliable database for injuries and accidents.

"Because there are no databases, riders know nothing about the rides," Martin said about a national injury report database. "The average person going to a carnival or fair thinks that the government has taken care of safety precautions for them, but there is a caveat of buyer beware."

Narreau said most violations are related to paperwork problems.

"We're pretty fortunate in this state to not have to deal with serious issues very often," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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