Florida's weather, bounce houses can be dangerous mix

News4Jax tests how inflatables stand up to wind gusts

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You've seen the videos and read the headlines: bounce houses picked up from the ground and blown like kites -- sometimes with children inside. These dangerous mishaps are often blamed on unexpected storms and gusts of wind. News4Jax wanted to know how strong of a gust could put your child in danger.

With the help of Gus Gustafson, 20-year owner of the bounce house rental store Space Walk Jacksonville, we conducted a test outside the Channel 4 studios. To generate the wind, we used two airboats, soliciting help from the men who run Perry-McCall Construction Inc. With the wind flaps on the back of the large fans, we were able to simulate a wind gust and measure wind speeds with a hand-held wind gauge.

Small bounce house test

We borrowed a small bounce house from a co-worker at Channel 4, the kind of inflatable you would buy online or at a warehouse store. It's a smaller bounce house that is popular for parents with preschoolers.

With Gustafson watching over our shoulder to ensure proper setup, we tethered and inflated the small inflatable to get ready for our first test.

Once the fan was turned on from one of our air boats, the operator simulated what a gust of wind would be like. We measured with our wind gauge as the speed picked up.

UNCUT: Wind test of small bounce house

When the air boat created a gust of 23 mph, our small inflatable went airborne, tumbling in the air before resting on the grass.

"One of these plastic stakes broke off. Half of it was still on the ground. So the stake helped pretty well, but the wind was just too much and it just took it off like a sail," said Gustafson.

Large bounce house test

For our second test, we wanted to see what would happen to a larger bounce house, the kind you would rent from a company for a party or an event. Gustafson brought his largest one, which costs about $4,000.

UNCUT: Wind test of commercial bounce house

We agreed, because of the cost, we would stop our test once the inflatable started to lift up off of the ground.

We turned on our second air boat and created the same wind gust simulations as we did with the smaller inflatable.

We monitored the wind speed on our gauge, and when the gust hit 27 mph, the large bounce house began to lift off the ground. So we wouldn't damage Gustafson's bounce house, we ended our test.

Rules of play

Gustafson says no matter what size inflatable, when wind gusts gets anywhere between 20 to 25mph, it is time to shut the fun down to protect the children. 

"Locally, we see wind gusts upwards of 30-40 mph nearly every afternoon in the summer. Most of the time, they are within fast moving storms. When severe thunderstorm warnings are issued, that indicates the possibility of wind gusts of 45 mph or greater," The Weather Authority meteorologist Rebecca Barry explained.

Once you've gotten the children out safely, be sure to deflate the bounce house.

"A storm comes through, they run into the house, and leave the unit turned on," said Gustafson. "Even though there's no kids in it, the unit still could come out of the ground and cause damage to cars, houses, porches or be in a tree." 

If the weather is clear and the kids are enjoying themselves in the inflatable, make sure someone is keeping a constant watch -- especially over the number and the size of the kids going inside.

"What we tell people is have two lines. Have the younger group, that's from eight and under say, let them get in for five or 10 minutes and get out. And then, the older kids get in and let them play for a while and get out. Rotate it around," Gustafson said. 

Follow the rules when you set up a bounce house

It's not just weather than can cause a bounce house mishap, improper setup can be to blame, too. 

Gustafson says setting up the bounce house on the grass with stakes is much safer than using sandbags to hold it down on rocky surfaces, mulch, or in sand.

He says securing the stakes is key. When you drive the stakes into the ground, hammer them in at a 45-degree angle all the way into the ground.

Gustafson says one of the biggest mistakes parents make during set up is doing it in the shade.

"They'll set it under the tree for shade and when they go blow it up it's inside the bushes. Or it's also a lightning a tractor. If it's lightening out, and the lightning hit the tree, it could possibly hit the bounce unit," he explained.

Injuries, deaths by the numbers

The Consumer Product Safety Commission tracks reported injuries related to inflatables. In its most recent data, a 10-year period from 2003-2013, there were 12 deaths linked to inflatables.

During that same period, there were 113,272 emergency room visits, and the data also show that since 2003, the number of yearly injuries are on the rise. There were an estimated 5,022 ER visits in 2003, compared to 16,342 in 2013.

Looking specifically from 2011-2013, during those two years, 61 percent of reported injuries were for children ranging in age from 4 to 15.

Most of those injuries were to limbs, with two-thirds, or 66 percent, involving arms and legs. And, nearly one third of those injuries, or 28 percent, involved a broken bone. 

Personal liability

Whether you rent a bounce house or you buy one, local personal injury attorney Christopher Shakib, with the law firm Terrell Hogan, told News4Jax simply reading the guidelines on the label of the inflatable may not be enough. You need to read the full manual.

"They need to look at what the directions say and the proper use of an inflatable, and those of the things they are going to be responsible for. And, if they don't do those things and someone is hurt, then they can be liable," he said

Shakib has conducted extensive research on inflatables, representing clients who have been hurt while using one.

"What a lot of people don't realize is, the regulations for operators of inflatable amusements are pretty minimal. Particularly in the state of Florida, and so it's buyer beware," warned Shakib. "We don't know when we hire someone, what their training is, how well they are at maintaining their inflatables. We don't know if they've follow the directions from the manufacturer."

He said the best way to protect yourself is to do your homework before you pick a rental company. You need to ask around, check online reviews, and also look for online forums that discuss inflatables.

UNCUT: Attorney on bounce-house liability

Once you've found a company to rent from, you need to ask if the company has liability insurance, request a copy of the declarations page and then call the insurance company to verify the policy is still active. 

We asked Shakib about those waivers companies often ask customers to sign, and if that prohibits you from suing if something were to go wrong.

"Florida law doesn't give inflatable operators or anybody the right to just say, 'Alright, here, sign this' and then we're going to do crazy things that are going to hurt you and you are out of luck if something happens. Normally, the waiver will work to protect them from liability based on things that, if they did what they were supposed to do as far as maintenance and safety, and having the correct number of observers or instructions for you with observers, and someone is hurt despite all of those things. For instance, if it's an inflatable slide and a child falls off the top of the slide because it's 12 feet up, then the waiver should work and you won't be able to sue them for that," Shakib said.

But he said, if there are maintenance or safety problems, that's a different story. 

"Checking for holes and checking to see if, for instance, the tether where stakes are attached to are correctly secured to the inflatable. If they haven't done those kind of things, and you're hurt from that, I don't think a waiver is going to protect them," Shakib added. "They can't have you sign a waiver and then they are negligent after the fact. So as waivers go, they can work, but they only go so far."

About the Authors:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.