Safety comes first on the Midway

Safety comes first on the Midway

URBANA — The day before the Midway's hair-raising new ride debuted at the Champaign County Fair, the mighty Cliffhanger went round and round for a private audience of one: an inspector with the Illinois Department of Labor.

In addition to annual check-ups, carnival companies that operate rides at Illinois fairs are subject to safety inspections several times during the course of the year, said state labor spokeswoman Anjali Julka.

It happened here Thursday, when an inspector gave Tinsley's Amusements' 26 rides, which range in age from 2 to 30 years old, the thumbs-up on the eve of the fair. That's just what fair board President Mike Kobel has come to expect.

"We've had Tinsley here for many, many years and they've always been a good client for us," he said. "We've not had any incidents with their equipment, and I plan on that tradition continuing."

With scary scenes making summer headlines at amusement parks across the country — last week, nearly two dozen riders were left suspended in mid-air after a tree fell onto a rollercoaster's tracks at Six Flags in California — Illinois touts its safety procedures as second to none in thoroughness:

— For starters, Julka said, every amusement ride open to the public in Illinois must be inspected before anyone climbs aboard. The Cliffhanger, being new to the fairgrounds in Urbana, got the closest look Thursday. After giving it the green light, the inspector spot-checked other areas, said Tinsley's official Sandy George.

— Once a ride has been approved for operation by a state inspector, it gets a permit decal, which is good for one year and must always be prominently displayed. An owner or operator of a ride that doesn't have a permit can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor under state law, according to the labor department, which encourages the public to look for the decal before boarding a ride.

Riders aren't the only ones checking. Kobel said he always takes a drive around the Midway looking for decals — "just to make sure."

— Depending on the ride — which will range locally from the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round to ones named The Predator and Starship 3000 — inspections can be rather routine or very complex, Julka said.

Each ride has its own inspection points, based on the complexity of the apparatus. There are, however, several areas Illinois inspectors measure for every ride, no matter if it's OK for small children or restricted to riders of a certain height. One: whether operators have stuck to the manufacturer's specifications. Another: whether rider restraints — the lap bars and seat belts — are working properly.

— Illinois doesn't limit its inspections to the rides, Julka said. Those operating the rides are also subject to review — and must be made available any time the state asks.

One reason for that, Julka said, is to ensure operators are adequately trained, keeping up on required daily inspections and maintenance, and registering everything in their log books.

The other reason is so state inspectors can be sure criminal history checks have been done on all operators, attendants and assistants, and that the carnival company has a substance-abuse policy in place, which includes random drug testing.

Tinsley's Amusements says it welcomes the attention — and has grown accustomed to it — after packing up and setting up at a different fair every week since early April, said Chris Walden, concessions manager for the High Hill, Mo.-based company.

Over the last month, Tinsley's stops included three cities in Missouri (St. Louis, Festus, Rolla) and one across the Mississippi in Jerseyville, which ended Sunday.

At 5 p.m. Monday, Walden said, his crew of 20 employees began the process of transporting all 26 rides — plus generators, trailers, games and concessions — to Urbana. "We had drivers making at least 40 different trips between Jerseyville and Urbana since Monday to get everything into place," he said.

They finished phase 1 of their set-up at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Between early this morning and 5 p.m. today, when the Midway opens for business, Walden said there will be more double- and triple-checking of all the main components of every ride — "bolts, pins and seat belts."

Walden said employees are also required to do dry runs of every ride themselves before a customer steps on the platform. "Once everything is inspected, we run the ride at least once or twice to make sure everything is functioning properly," he said.

Despite the gap in age, the company stands firmly behind the safety of every ride it runs. "A 30-year-old ride is perfectly safe as long as you properly maintain it," Walden said. "And we have a full shop truck with backup parts available in case we need them."

Walden has a personal stake in making sure every bolt is up to code: his 4-year-old daughter, Hadleigh, and 2-year-old son, Hampton, are part of Tinsley's traveling party and enjoy the free ride perks as much as any fairgoer, he says.

"I probably have the luckiest children in the world."

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