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Inflatables oversight by city draws fire

A fatal fall last month at an inflatable amusement facility has raised questions about a Wichita law intended to regulate inflatable rides and safeguard children.

Owners of several inflatable ride companies say the city ordinance, passed in 2005, is rarely enforced, that ride inspections aren't verified, and that city officials routinely ignore reports about people who operate rides without proper licenses or inspections.

City officials say they have responded to complaints about unlicensed inflatables in past years, though they couldn't cite numbers.

Kurt Schroeder, Wichita's superintendent of central inspection, said city attorneys and inspectors are reviewing the ordinance and enforcement procedures and plan to present their findings to the city manager.

But several industry experts say serious injuries or deaths may be prevented by stricter regulations and oversight.

"I've been feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness trying to get people to take this seriously, and nobody has," said Jay Jones, owner of Kids Fun USA in Wichita. Since 2004, Jones says, he has pushed for tougher regulations of inflatable amusements.

"There were a whole lot of people operating under the radar, and it's like nobody cared until now," he said. "Now, unfortunately, we've got a dead child."

License, inspection

Five-year-old Matthew Branham died March 22 after falling from an inflatable at Pure Entertainment, near Kellogg and Tyler, and hitting his head on a concrete floor.

Ten days after the accident Wichita police revoked the facility's license, saying its rides were not properly inspected. City documents show that the rides, owned by Duane Zogleman, were inspected in early 2009 by Zogleman's son, Jesse, who was not certified as required by the city ordinance.

The business is appealing the cease-and-desist order and will remain open during the appeal process. Duane Zogleman said his rides have since been inspected by an independent, certified inspector and deemed safe.

Zogleman's attorney, Mark Schoenhofer, said there is "absolutely no link between the inspection or lack of inspection and the unfortunate death of this child."

Others, however, say the tragedy illustrates that inflatable bouncers — an entertainment staple of festivals, birthday parties, church carnivals and school fun nights — can be dangerous, even deadly. And the industry is largely unregulated.

"We've always viewed (Wichita's ordinance) as an income producer for the city as opposed to a safety measure," said Russell Allison, owner of Celebrations Fun Equipment. "It's been difficult for anybody legitimate in our industry to take it as something serious."

Prompted by a Ferris wheel accident that seriously injured a Wichita teen, the City Council passed an ordinance in April 2005 requiring amusement rides, including inflatables, to meet certain safety standards.

The law requires companies to maintain at least $1 million worth of insurance, have their rides checked by a certified inspector and pay a yearly license fee — $30 per ride, or $600 for 20 rides or more.

Compared with other cities, Wichita's safety requirements are strict. The state Department of Labor regulates amusement parks but not inflatables or portable carnival rides, said Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the department.

But some in the industry say Wichita's ordinance doesn't go far enough. Any given weekend, they say, hundreds of children hop around on unlicensed, unsupervised, potentially unsafe inflatables.

"No one checks anything," Allison said. "You pay your fee and file your paperwork — if you choose to file it at all — and that's it."

Inconsistencies

Last week, in response to an Eagle inquiry, city officials discovered that a Pump It Up franchise, one of the area's oldest and most popular inflatable playgrounds, has been operating without a license since last May.

Haley Thompson, manager of the facility at 6803 W. Taft, said she just recently learned that her paperwork was not filed by the May 1 deadline last year. The business is insured and its four inflatables were inspected as required last spring, she said.

The rides were inspected again this month as part of the license process for the coming year, she said.

"I guess we didn't get everything in on time (last year), so there was a late fee, but we didn't know about that," Thompson said. "Nobody called us. Nobody said anything, so I just assumed everything was taken care of."

Schroeder, Wichita's inspection chief, said Pump It Up submitted an application last spring, "But it was a totally incomplete application at the time. ... We're working... to look at our process and figure out what the next step is."

The Pump It Up franchise has been in Wichita five years and was licensed in previous years, he said. Asked how the facility was allowed to operate a full year without a valid license, Schroeder said, "We're looking into that."

Schroeder said his staff also is investigating Music Video to Go, one of four companies on the Wichita school district's list of approved vendors for inflatable equipment.

City documents obtained by The Eagle through a records request show that the Derby-based company does not have a current portable amusement license on file with the city. Its owner, Kyle Curfman, said that's not the case, and showed a copy of a license that has an expiration date of April 30, 2010.

"I'm not sure about that," Schroeder said last week. "I have passed that along to the law department, and they're looking into that as well."

After the fatal fall at Pure Entertainment, The Eagle requested copies of inspection certificates for that Wichita business.

The inspector's signature on the 40 certificates was illegible, and the inspector's name was not typed or printed elsewhere in the documents. There is no standard inspection form, Schroeder explained; inspectors create and submit their own.

After the accident, Duane Zogleman confirmed that his son had inspected the rides used by the business, which is allowed under the ordinance. But the law requires inspectors to be certified by one of two nationally recognized industry safety groups; Jesse Zogleman's certification had expired in 2008, police said.

Self-policing industry

Schroeder said his department has responded to concerns about inflatable amusement companies through the years, and inspectors or police officers have shut down rides if the operator couldn't show a valid city license.

"I wouldn't say that we necessarily went out to every site and counted rides and matched up numbers," he said. "The way the ordinance was drafted kind of put a lot of the burden on the industry itself.... We rely on the industry to self-police."

Jones, the Kids Fun USA owner, said that's part of the problem. He and other business owners have called city officials many times to report unlicensed or unsafe inflatables, he said, and, "What happens? Nothing."

"People don't realize, complacency is where the real problems lie," he said.

Jones said he thinks inspections of inflatables should be done by a state agency so they are objective and consistent. He points to a law in Oklahoma that includes random inspections of inflatables at festivals and other events.

Ruben Hernandez, owner of Party Bounce Rentals, said he would support random inspections.

"Anybody who's doing it right shouldn't have a problem with that," he said.

In the past, companies have opposed regulations because they feared they would be little more than a revenue producer for governments.

"Most people don't like it until it's in place and they see it works," Allison said. "Right now we have something in place that doesn't work."

Some Wichita City Council members said they may revisit the inflatables issue in coming weeks, but they're waiting to hear recommendations from city staff. Pure Entertainment's appeal of its cease-and-desist order is scheduled for May 18.

"Anytime you have an event of this magnitude, it triggers some kind of response in terms of woulda-coulda-shoulda," said council member Jeff Longwell, whose district includes Pure Entertainment.

"I'm sure that we will have a discussion on it eventually.... We should be saying to ourselves: How do we prevent this from happening again, and what is our role?"

Mayor Carl Brewer said he hasn't heard from many constituents regarding government oversight of inflatable rides.

"Children are supposed to be able to go and have fun and be safe," Brewer said. "We're not sure exactly what happened in this case, but we want to make sure it doesn't happen again. ... Because it does affect a lot of people, and one life is too much."

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