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Orange County

Getting the Drop on Safety

County fair: From rides to first aid, organizers strive to keep the public out of harm's way. Still, many thrill seekers can overdo on corn dogs.

July 22, 2002|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jesse Kallus has an interesting job at the Orange County Fair: Every morning he falls 13 stories into a net to assure ride operators that the same trip is safe for customers.

"It's a very scary experience," said Kallus, 22, an employee of Total Throw Rider Inc., which operates the fair's Adrenaline Drop ride. It offers thrill seekers an 85-foot free fall from the top of a metal tower into the safety of a mesh net below.

"I could probably do this a hundred times and it would still make me scream and laugh hysterically," Kallus said. "You always think something could go wrong--it wakes you up better than coffee."

His daily test drop is part of the fair's focus on safety, an effort fair officials say has resulted in an excellent safety record. "We don't want to put our passengers somewhere we don't want them to be," said Barry Schnaible, a private consultant hired to oversee ride safety. "We don't want any of our guests leaving this place in an ambulance."

Toward that end, the fair--which runs through Sunday--has adopted a number of measures designed to help ensure patrons' safety. For starters, Schnaible inspects each ride as it enters the fairgrounds on wheels and during its assembly before opening day. In addition, he makes daily rounds to randomly reinspect and ensure compliance with safety regulations.

And Howard Hilliard, safety coordinator for Ray Commack Shows, which provides the fair's rides and entertainment, requires each ride operator to submit a daily report based on a morning inspection. Additionally, he said, the company requires drug testing of all ride attendants and offers them extra hours of training.

"We take a proactive stance," Hilliard said of the company's safety-promoting efforts.

On the state regulatory end, all carnival rides are inspected and certified annually. In addition, said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA's Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees amusement rides, state inspectors make random spot checks throughout the year, including one during this year's setup at the Orange County Fair.

As a result, fair and state officials say, the Orange County Fair has a stellar safety record. "I think it's very safe," Fryer said.

Indeed, neither of the two fatalities at the fair that officials can recall involved passengers on rides. Two years ago, a 63-year-old man died of a heart attack while dancing at the fair's popular Blues and Brews Club. And in 1992, a carnival worker was electrocuted while attempting to repair a ride.

Temporary venues like county fairs tend to be safer than permanent amusement parks, Fryer said. "The people who set them up and take them down are also looking at all the parts to make sure they aren't worn," he said. "There are more frequent opportunities to review the inner operations of a ride, and repairs can be made as they are assembled or disassembled."

Permanent amusement park rides, on the other hand, are generally inspected only once a year by state regulators. And even that has been required only since 2000 in the wake of several fatal accidents at amusement parks, Fryer said.

Still, the Orange County Fair is not free of accidents. Last year, according to Judy Davison, an administrative services officer in charge of the fair's first-aid station, 2,624 of the estimated 845,000 fairgoers required some sort of medical attention, including 611 who needed "more than a Band-Aid or a casual look at something."

The most common complaints, Davison said, were headaches, blisters and sunburns; the more serious cases generally involved pre-existing conditions, including a diabetic who'd had too much to drink. As far as the rides go, it's upset stomachs. "The most serious problem on rides," she said, "is that they've eaten three corn dogs before getting on and then they throw up."

Kallus generally avoids eating corn dogs before making his morning ascent to the top of the 135-foot tower from whence he hurls screaming.

"I don't know anyone who's ever gotten used to this," he says. "We've never had a bad thing happen, but I don't look forward to it--not this early in the morning."

And how does his family back in Lake Charles, La., view his choice of employment?

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy," Kallus admits.

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