The Ohio State Fair: Responding to an Unthinkable Crisis

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Growing up, I attended a county fair in Ohio every year. While smaller than a State Fair, the experiences are similar:  fair food, 4-H Club, Blue Ribbons and carnival rides. If my siblings and I were lucky, we’d convince our parents to purchase wristbands so we could hop from ride to ride all day and into the evening. Upon climbing into a ride, however, the thoughts of “what if this harness comes loose?” or, “what happens if the car detaches and we go flying?” always circled my head. Part of the thrill of a ride is experiencing the perceived danger while taking comfort in the thought that every precaution has been taken to assure there is no real danger.

During the opening day of the 2017 Ohio State Fair, one of the largest state fairs in the country, the thought of a carnival ride malfunctioning became reality for a group of fair goers. A ride called the Fireball malfunctioned, leading to the death of an 18-year-old rider and injured seven others. Governor John Kasich ordered all rides be temporarily shut down and inspected before reopening the next day. The fair released a statement reading: ”Our hearts are heavy for the families of those involved in last night’s tragic accident. We have shut down all rides until the state has inspected each and every ride again and deemed them to be safe. Gates will open at 9 am and other activities will resume as scheduled.”

The first day of the state fair closed with emergency lights flashing instead of the lights of rides and vendors.

“But, Inspections Were Conducted”

Reports indicate that all rides were inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture four separate times prior to the gates opening. During a press conference, Chief Inspector for Amusement Park Rides at the Department of Agriculture, Michael Vartorella, stated all rides were inspected by a team of five, including himself, in addition to a third-party contractor. Four rides did not pass the safety inspection, therefore, did not operate during opening day. One ride that did pass inspection, was Fireball – a circulating ride that swings riders side to side, while simultaneously rotating.

The rides could have been inspected four times or 400 times, but the chance of a malfunction was still a possibility. The most thorough inspection would not have fully eliminated the threat of error; whether mechanical or operational. The fair reopened the day after the accident. After additional inspections, all rides resumed operating within days.

The Musts When Responding to a Loss of Life Event

During a crisis, a business or organization must think about the victims, families of victims and those affected.

When an organization must manage a loss of life event, they:

  • Must not discuss how the loss or incident makes them feel.  No words will measure up to what the families or those impacted feel. Instead, focus should be on those directly affected: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family;”
  • Must not characterize someone else’s feelings or what the loss must mean to the family;
  • Must not take ownership of someone else’s grief;
  • Must not ignore the victim’s family; whether intentionally or unintentionally;
  • Must plan strategies to communicate with families prior to a crisis occurring;
  • Must clear all communications with victim(s) family.

A business or organization that is handling a loss of life event, however, must also restore order and function, while simultaneously identifying the cause of the crisis.

The Ohio State Fair reopened and allowed 4-H members to show animals, vendors to exhibit their work and businesses to sell their products.

Plan for the Known and Unknown

The Ohio State Fair, and every other fair and amusement park, must plan for situations that include death or injury of a person or people. As tragic as the situation that occurred was, it’s an accident that had to be planned for prior to it occurring. A death or injury is not out of the scope of possibilities at a fair with thousands of people attending, and machines that are being assembled and disassembled on a weekly basis.

The Ohio State Fair entertains more than 900,000 visitors during a week span. An accident resulting in the death of a person is not as likely to occur in relation to a visitor tripping and breaking a toe, for instance; but it’s still there.

From a predictive perspective, sometimes it is easy to omit the likelihood of an accident or event, like a carnival ride malfunction because it is remote. It’s easy for fairgoers to think, ‘Oh it won’t happen here.’ We call that Disaster Denial.

Having a plan in place provides stakeholders confidence in an organization. Preparedness and resiliency are brand attributes.

Anywhere crowds of people are present, issues and threats appear in every form. A fair is no different and visitors and staff must identify potential crises. Recognition and planning for dangers is necessary. A fair is a time for enjoyment, and we’re not advocating against that, but next time you decide to visit your state or county fair, or a local festival, be aware of your surroundings. Recognize exit points in case of a max exodus and identify that rides being assembled and disassembled repetitively may pose threats. Understand that operator error can lead to disaster.

As a member of staff, ensure proper training and education has been conducted for incidents that can occur at your place of work. Every crisis is a human crisis, but planning and training will significantly decrease the impact an event will have on your organization or business.

To listen to an All Sides podcast on this issue, visit with Guests: Ken Martin, Virginia-based amusement ride safety analyst and consultant, Drew Tewksbury, director – senior vice president, McGowan Amusement Group, Boyd F. Jensen II, managing Partner, Garrett & Jensen, past president, International Amusement & Leisure Defense Association, and Tracy Mehan, manager of Translational Research, Center for Injury Research and Policy, Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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