‘Inflatables aren’t babysitters': How to keep kids safe in bounce houses

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If you have children, you know bounce houses are about as universally loved by kids as ice cream cones on a summer day and gobs of candy on Halloween.

See bounce house, run toward it: That pretty much sums up the experience of most toddlers and elementary schoolers.

But for some parents, like this reporter, the feeling about these inflatables is more along the lines of “accident waiting to happen.”

That is why the news of the bounce house that was swept away by a wind gust in South Glens Falls, New York, a few weeks back got my attention and the attention of so many other parents. It climbed as high as 20 feet in the air and seriously injured two boys, ages 5 and 6, who were playing inside.

Then this weekend, another incident. This time, the scene was Littleton, Colorado, where a bouncy slide was blown between 200 and 300 feet, tossing around two children who were playing on it. Thankfully, the kids are OK.

Two dramatic incidents in a short period of time combined with a report that injuries related to bounce houses have skyrocketed in recent years make you wonder whether to run away when you see an inflatable in the distance, especially if your child hasn’t spotted it yet.

Is there anything parents can do, other than imposing a 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.

Parents don’t have to rule out bounce house fun, they say — but they do need to take steps to keep kids safe.

Ted Amberg is chief executive officer of Amberg Entertainment, 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.

The key for parents, Amberg says, is “understanding and being aware of the three Ws of bounce house safety … weather, workers and warranty.”

Three Ws for bounce house safety: weather

Wind is “the number one enemy” of an inflatable and can cause it to become dangerous, he said. Wind also appears to have been a factor in the two recent incidents where the bounce houses blew away.

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 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.

Woodburn 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.”

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.

Of course, there’s always another approach: counting the days until your children are too big — or too cool — for them.

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