Recent Media Blitz on Theme Parks
The following is commentary on two recent events highlighted by national media. (Originally Posted 7/13/2011)
There was a recent report published by several national media outlets which gave the erroneous suggestion that Theme Parks are unsafe. It’s entire basis for this report was citing two entirely different incidents, at two entirely separate parks, with two entirely different outcomes. The first, a fatal accident at Darien Lake in which a guest was ejected from a roller coaster. The second, a stranded unit at the top of the New Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas. A park with which several members of this organization are very familiar with.
The incident at Six Flags Over Texas is really a non-issue. The ride likely through some sort of trouble light as a result of PLC input (Parameter not as expected), or operator command (Ride Stop, Lift Stop, or E-Stop), to strand the unit at the top of the lift. You can of course safely unload from lift, however it does take time, and guest do tend to get frustrated the longer they are up there. They tend to start to panic and that’s when things can get out of control. If they could have restarted the ride in a short amount of time, they would have just jogged the train over the lift. Its much quicker to clear a trouble light and move a unit then it is to unload a train from the top of the lift. The media took this out of context and ran with it and the parks media relations group responded. If it was a bad wheel, and the ride was shut down by its operator, then the operator did his or her job, and did it well. Having operators who can think on their feet and are not afraid to stop when something is out a place is a honorable trait.
The accident at Darien Lake on the surface would appear to be straight forward to the average person. A guest with a double leg amputation riding a large roller coaster ride who’s primary restraint system relies on pressure at the waist, was ejected from the ride. The investigation will likely not focus on how he was thrown out of the ride, but how he got was allowed to board the ride in the first place. Much like when an airplane crashes, there is often a series of events which build upon each other, which lead up to a fatal accident. The investigators will also likely probe into the knowledge and training of the operators as well as the operating conditions that day. Being proactive means you cannot react to what it is unseen. I feel sorry for the operators of the ride, because it is possible that they may not have even seen this coming. Operators are only human, they can make mistakes. Unlike a computer they can suffer from heat exhaustion and emotional compromise, they can be overwhelmed with sensory overload to an extent that they can no longer process everything they see or hear, but are operating the ride by repetition. Sometimes mistakes are caught and it becomes a non-issue, other times they are not, and then they become headlines.
Before the investigation has even been completed, the media and the general public is already pointing fingers and assigning blame based on misinformation and lack of understanding. It is what it is, an unfortunate accident, and no one wins. The operators of the ride will likely never operate again, their lives will be changed for ever. The parks history will be forever altered. Our industry will pull together and make changes to operating procedures so that it never happens again. Within six hours of the accident hitting the news, we were already auditing ride safety systems, operator knowledge, and training material. We want to re-enforce our operators knowledge on the mechanical limitations of the ride including it’s life safety systems, even if its redundant training. We operate in one of the most litigation prone industries in the world. If there is ounce of prevention to be had, you can bet that we will extract every pound of cure out of it.
Ride Operators are often high school and college students trained to operate expensive and dangerous machinery in climates of varying extremes for extended hours and minimum wages with little to no hope for career advancement. The pay they receive does not equal the burden that they carry on their shoulders. Every time they cycle that ride it’s passengers are somebody’s mother, father, brother, or daughter. They understand that they are ultimately responsible for overseeing safety of their ride at all times. Many will go above and beyond the call of duty in the event of an emergency, but sometimes the operators do every thing they can and it’s still not enough. No amount of signage or spieling can help an operator when the guest is the one at fault. Experience will tell you that often the most difficult job of a ride operator is to protect the guest from themselves.