Inflatables need real city oversight

Inflatable amusements are here to stay, judging from the big smiles on breathless preschoolers exiting the rides at festivals, parties or privately owned play places. Just like any playground equipment, inflatables are best used with caution — and with attentive parents close by.

But inflatables also demand more meaningful official oversight than they had leading up to a 5-year-old’s fatal fall last month at Pure Entertainment in west Wichita.

As an article by reporter Suzanne Perez Tobias in the April 18 Eagle illustrated, a 2005 city ordinance intended to regulate rides and safeguard kids has been doing no such thing. Inspections, licensing and enforcement have been a joke, inviting a tragedy like the one last month.

Russell Allison, owner of Celebrations Fun Equipment, said he views the Wichita ordinance as “an income producer for the city as opposed to a safety measure.”

The city collects paperwork and yearly fees of $30 per ride, or $600 per 20 rides or more, and requires inflatables owners to have $1æmillion worth of insurance and annual inspections by certified inspectors. But “no one checks anything,” Allison said.

Another inflatable business had filed what the city characterized as a “totally incomplete application” last spring and operated without a license since, apparently without notification from City Hall that there was a problem.

A Derby-based inflatables owner showed The Eagle a copy of a valid license that, according to city documents, didn’t exist.

And Pure Entertainment had a license under the ordinance, though its rides hadn’t been properly inspected by a certified inspector and the uncertified inspector’s signature on the 40 forms was illegible, with no name typed or printed elsewhere.

Pure Entertainment’s lawyer, Mark Schoenhofer, said there is “absolutely no link between the inspection or lack of inspection and the unfortunate death of this child.” Perhaps not.

And maybe the Wichita and Haysville school districts overreacted in banning all inflatables from school events. Why not, as an Eagle letter writer suggested last week, form a community committee to assess the risk and recommend policy safeguards?

Meanwhile, no state law applies to inflatables — though some owners said they could support a consistently applied law requiring random inspections.

As city attorneys and other staff review the ordinance and consider changes, they need to acknowledge that regulations are only effective when enforced. They should fix two glaring problems — the lack of a standard inspection form for inflatable rides and the fact that certified inspectors currently need not be independent from the business being inspected. And the city should ensure that when complaints of unlicensed and unsafe inflatables come in, action follows.

“We rely on the industry to self-police,” Kurt Schroeder, Wichita’s superintendent of central inspection, told The Eagle.

That’s fine when it works. The problem is that when it doesn’t, the consequences can be deadly.