GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. – With the gates of the Clay County fair scheduled to open Thursday afternoon -- one week after a teenager fell to his death from an Orlando thrill ride -- ride safety is on the minds of many.
Fair officials assure visitors that safety is a top priority for its 42 rides, which are run by more than five dozen operators.
Inspectors with the Florida Department of Agriculture spent the week leading up to opening day making sure the rides are safe.
There were three inspectors who had to watch each ride operate as if people were on it. They went through a checklist of what needed to happen to make sure there are no accidents.
“They are constantly looking at every stage of setup that we go through,” said Andy Deggeller, who is the owner of Deggeller Attractions and operator of the Midways games and rides at the fair. “There are things that they want to see before the ride is completely set up.”
That checklist included keeping an eye on restraints and the general operation of the ride, while looking for any malfunctions.
“They have to see it run as if it were open for the public,” Deggeller said. “Once all of that is done and they fill that the ride is ready to ride individuals, they put a certification sticker on every ride.”
Deggeller said most of his ride operators have been with him several years, some as long as 30. Each operator must be well-versed in who is allowed on the ride.
That includes height minimums and maximums, and which health conditions stop someone from riding.
“We constantly talk without our employees about best practices and how to maintain a safe midway,” he said. “A lot of our employees go to seminars in the off-season that pertains specifically to ride safety.”
Tyre Sampson died last Thursday on the “Orlando Free Fall,” which has only a harness restraint, and documents show Sampson likely exceeded the maximum weight for the ride. Records also show those operating the ride received just one day of training.
Now, state lawmakers want to know why seat belts were not included as a backup safety precaution on the ride.
No rides at the fair have weight limits like the Orlando ride, but some do have height limits and ride operators will enforce them. Those limits will be listed at the entrance to the ride.
State inspectors posted stickers on each ride as a stamp of approval if it met their criteria to run safely and correctly.
“Rides are a lot like anything else that you have. They have manuals that tell us exactly what we need to be doing, to be servicing, troubleshooting,” Deggeller said. “So we often refer back to the individuals of the companies that built the equipment and ask them if there is an issueb what is the fix, how do we fix it properly and leave it up to them to tell us how to do it.”
Although each operator must be at least 18 years old, Deggeller said some have been with his company for decades.
All of them must attend seminars during the off-season and log a specific amount of hours.
A state report into the death of Sampson found the ride operator in Orlando only had four and a half weeks of training prior to the incident.
“We have our supervisors who have all been trained at each specific piece of equipment,” Deggeller said. “They can go around and train an actual operator to do his or her job. It’s not just the operators. We have people who take tickets, who might assist people getting on and off a ride. They all need to be trained too. There is documentation that they have to have to show they have participated in these things and that they are maintaining their hours.”
Hours that are needed to keep them eligible to operate these rides.
Deggeller also said although the state inspected the rides, his crew goes through a checklist for each ride before the fair opens each day to make sure that ride is operating the way it should.
Thursday is the first day of the fair. Gates open at 2 p.m.