Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv. This is an update to a story first published in June 2014.
A 7-year-old dies from multiple injuries after bouncy house blows away in England
Experts explain how they can be made safer with proper anchoring and precautions
As a parent, this is another story that is impossible to comprehend: A 7-year-old girl is now dead after the bouncy castle she was playing on blew away at an Easter fair in Essex, England.
It is believed the castle was swept away by a gust of wind. The girl, Summer Grant, was taken to a local hospital and died of multiple injuries several hours later. A 24-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence, according to the Essex police on its Facebook page.
Certainly, here in the United States, there have been plenty of stories that have parents, including this reporter, looking at these bouncy houses – or bounce houses – as less of a thrill ride for children and more of a fright for parents when they consider all the scary things that can happen.
Not even two years ago, we had two back-to-back incidents that renewed concerns about how dangerous these inflatables can be.
A bounce house was swept away by a wind gust in South Glens Falls, New York, climbing as high as 20 feet and seriously injuring two boys who were playing inside. A short time after that, in Littleton, Colorado, a bouncy slide was blown between 200 and 300 feet, tossing around two children who were playing on it. No one was seriously hurt in that incident.
Back then, we wondered whether there is anything a parent can do to try and keep their kids safe, other than imposing a total ban on bouncing?
For some answers, we reached out to two industry experts who work regularly with inflatables. One runs a company providing entertainment, including bounce houses, across the country. The other works at a nonprofit focusing on training people to certify rides and ride operators.
Experts: Fun and safety can mix
Their advice, given to me back in 2014, is as vital today as it was back then: Parents don’t have to rule out bounce house fun, they said, but they do need to take steps to keep kids safe.
Ted Amberg is founder and chief executive officer of Amberg Events, a Missouri-based company that supplies entertainment for business, school and church events in 22 states. He also gives lectures and consults with companies across the country on safety issues.
He believes that since those serious bounce house incidents in the U.S. in 2014, the industry is getting safer in this country.
“I certainly feel the U.S. bounce house industry is maturing and has learned from its past mistakes, namely, allowing smaller operators to go unchecked with safety regulations, which in turn caused many of the incidents and accidents in the first place,” he said.
He also chalks some of the improvements to insurance rates, which have skyrocketed, and are keeping the “mom and pop” operators from getting into the business.
“They just didn’t have the proper safety training to do it and saw these things happening so with insurance dramatically going up, I think that’s actually helped,” he said.
But Laura Woodburn, spokeswoman for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, a nonprofit that educates and certifies people to conduct amusement ride and operator inspections, cautions against making any assumption that just because you are a small operator, you are not safe.
“I think that would be presumptious,” she said. “There are some companies that do phenomenal work and there are some larger companies that don’t, so I don’t think that’s a fair assumption to make.”
Since 2014, Woodburn said, more people have come to the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials to get their inspection certification. The group added 200 members since then, with a total membership of close to 1,200 now, she said.
“I would just encourage people if they are going to purchase this equipment and use it, whether you are using it for your own personal use or you are going to be renting it out, or you are going to have a fair, whatever use you have, get educated on how to properly maintain it, how to operate it and how to inspect the equipment,” she said. “It’s not a huge investment (of) your time, but it is a huge investment in your overall safety program.”
Woodburn and Amberg said their advice, offered back in 2014, stands today. The key for parents is “understanding and being aware of the three Ws of bounce house safety … weather, workers and warranty,” said Amberg.
The first W : Weather
Wind is “the No. 1 enemy” of an inflatable and can cause it to become dangerous, he said. Most manufacturers recommend removing children from bounce houses and/or deflating them when winds are 20 to 25 miles per hour or higher, Amberg said.
“Obviously, most parents aren’t going to have a wind gauge on them, so I have an easy rule of thumb for people. … When your pants are flapping like a flag, that is a really good, simple indicator to understand, ‘Hey, the winds are picking up.’ “
Sure, the kids might cry when you tell them they need to come out of the bounce house, but tears are preferable to an incident, adds Amberg, who is a parent himself.
The second W: Workers
The second “W” stands for workers, the people who are operating the bounce house. Amberg says a lot of people, especially some of the newer operators who have just gotten into the business, don’t understand how the inflatable should be anchored to the ground.
“They are using 4- or 5-inch plastic stakes,” he said, whereas his operators would use “30- to 40-inch heavy-duty metal” ones.
“It’s lack of judgment that almost always causes the problem, not using proper anchoring or not monitoring the situation.”
Which leads to another piece of advice: Parents should make sure there is an operator present at the bounce house.
“You wouldn’t let your kid more than likely go on a roller coaster if it does not have an attendant,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t let your kid go in the swimming pool unattended. So why would you let your kid get into a bounce house or a slide or any inflatable” that is unattended?
Parents should also make sure operators are focusing on what’s happening inside the bounce house, not outside, said Woodburn of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
She said that only kids of the same size should be inside together and that most inflatables will have rules stitched on the outside detailing the maximum occupancy.
It’s “usually plainly obvious what those rules are,” Woodburn said.
Parents need to watch what’s happening too, especially if they rent a bounce house themselves, Amberg said.
“Inflatables aren’t baby sitters. Sometimes, people look at it that way. ‘Oh, let’s toss the kids in the backyard.’
“It’s kind of like the swimming pool. You’re not going to leave that unsupervised. You should never leave an inflatable unsupervised.”
The final W: Warranty
The final “W” stands for warranty, encouraging parents to ask the operator to see the company’s current insurance policy and state inspections.
Now, this gets somewhat complicated. There are no national inspection guidelines or regulations for bounce houses. Inspections are left up to the states. Some have thorough inspection programs, and some have none at all, said Amberg, but parents can inquire with the operator or the manufacturer to learn about inspections to the bounce houses and to get more of a sense of a company’s reputation.
There is no question that more kids are getting inured from bounce houses, as CNN reported in 2012.
A few years ago, Dr. Gary Smith of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, launched the first study to examine bounce house-related injuries, and he found that injuries jumped 1,500% between 1995 and 2010. In 2010, 31 children were treated in emergency departments each day on average, which works out to about one child every 45 minutes, Smith said.
Part of the reason for the jump, says Woodburn, is because there are a lot more bounce houses today and a lot more rentals at people’s houses than 10 years ago.
“More people are on the devices, so that might lend itself to more injuries,” she said.
Amberg suggests there are also more bounce house operators “who don’t know what they’re doing.”
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But if parents use common sense and remember those three Ws, weather, workers and warranty, they will go a long way toward helping make the bounce house “as fun and safe as it’s intended to be,” Amberg said.
Do you worry about your child playing in a bounce house? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter.