Wichita officials review proposed new rules for inflatable rides

When Lemari Hunt celebrated her second birthday this weekend, she and her friends bounced around inside an inflatable castle in her grandmother's yard.

"They're fun," said Lemari's grandmother, Quotonya Hunt. "I've rented them before, and kids have a great time."

Bounce houses, slides and obstacle courses remain popular attractions. But a recent tragedy illustrates that they can be dangerous, even deadly.

Wichita city officials are reviewing an ordinance aimed at safeguarding children on inflatable rides. They hope proposed changes — including plans to regulate rides owned by nonprofit groups and to crack down on people who misuse equipment — will raise awareness of potential dangers.

"There have been a number of incidents — not just here but around the country," said Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz. "Enough to say, 'We need to be careful.' It's a matter of public safety."

Wichita police and national safety officials are still investigating the death of Matthew Branham, a 5-year-old boy who fell from an inflatable March 22 and hit his head on a concrete floor.

Meanwhile, city inspectors, police, attorneys and representatives of inflatable ride companies have come together to propose tougher regulations of moonbounce-style rides. The Wichita City Council is scheduled to discuss the proposal at a workshop June 22.

Proposed changes include requiring anyone using inflatables — including nonprofit groups that own rides and families who rent them for private parties — to receive training in setup, safety and emergency procedures.

The proposal also would allow police to cite people who use or allow children to use inflatable rides in an unsafe manner, even on private property. That violation, a misdemeanor, would carry a fine of up to $500 and 30 days in jail.

"This puts some teeth in the law," Stolz said. "If we roll up on a report that someone's doing something crazy on one of these things, we'll have a checklist. We'll know what to look for, what to ask about."

The list, developed by representatives of inflatable ride companies, specifies how rides should be set up and secured, how many people can jump at once and whether a ride has been inspected.

Wichita's current ordinance requires licensing and inspections only for companies that rent out inflatable equipment. Under the proposed changes, churches or other groups that own bounce houses and use them for special events would have to be licensed and insured and have the rides inspected.

Items specifically exempted from the proposed ordinance include nonmechanized playground equipment, trampolines, coin-operated rides and rides "used solely for private residential use."

Kurt Schroeder, Wichita's superintendent of central inspection, said many of the proposed changes mirror a state law that regulates portable amusement rides. The state law, however, exempts inflatables.

"People are just as likely to get hurt on one of these (inflatables) if it's operated improperly as any other ride out there," Schroeder said. "Our primary interest is to make things as safe as we can."

Jay Jones, owner of Kids Fun USA in Wichita, said he's pleased with the proposed changes so far. They include several measures he pushed for in 2004, when the original ordinance was developed.

"In most cases being on a moonbounce is not life-threatening," Jones said. "But if somebody picks up a bounce (ride) and takes it home and blows it up and says, 'There you go,' they have every bit of the responsibility that goes with that. ...

"Certain actions — or in some cases inaction — can create problems."

Jones added, however, that the proposed changes wouldn't eliminate every possible danger.

A renegade operator who chooses to ignore an inflatable manufacturers' operating instructions "will probably ignore any new rules as well," he said.

Hunt, the Wichita grandmother, says she'll continue to rent bounce houses. She usually pays an extra $25 to have a rental company set up the ride, she said, "because they know what they're doing."

She also makes sure an adult monitors the ride at all times, and that kids keep an arm's-length apart when they bounce.

"I think they're safe, and they're fun," Hunt said. "You just have to be careful and have some common sense."