PA to let the sunshine in on amusement ride inspection reports

By next spring, Pennsylvanians are expected to be able to go online to check the inspection reports for each of the more than 9,100 registered amusement rides and attractions across the state, according to an official from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The database that will house those reports will address the problem highlighted by an August PublicSource report.

That report found more than half of the state’s permanent amusement parks and water parks didn’t file all of their required monthly ride inspection reports for 2012.

It also sparked the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee Chairman John Maher, R-Allegheny, to call a hearing on Wednesday to investigate its findings about seemingly lax enforcement by the department’s Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards, which oversees amusement rides.

PublicSource coverage:
 

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In his testimony, Michael Pechart, the department’s executive deputy secretary, repeatedly told the committee that Pennsylvania is a model when it comes to amusement ride safety.

He said that last year more than 11 million people visited Pennsylvania amusement parks and took an estimated 55 million rides. More than 5.2 million attended fairs and carnivals in the state.

Out of that, there were 293 riders who were reported to be injured on rides; about 60 requiring medical treatment. The most severe was a broken collarbone. And most of those injuries were the result of riders not following instruction or guidelines, he said.
“This means we show an accident rate of less than .0005 percent, or, said another way, less than five injuries per 1 million ride experiences,” Pechart testified.

But given the findings of the PublicSource report, Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Westmoreland, said, “I hope this is a situation where we are good and we’re not just getting lucky. Because to me, it seems we don’t have the paperwork to support what is being said.”

Pechart said the database’s creation will rectify that problem. He said creating a searchable database for the Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards has been on the department’s information technology modernization drawing board since 2005.
But, he said, “it’s a very slow process but more importantly, it’s a very expensive process.”

He said after the hearing that in-house information technology staff will do the bulk of the work in creating the database over the next seven months, using other departmental databases, such as the one for restaurant inspection reports, as a starting point. Pechart estimates the cost of its creation to be no more than $50,000, or 10 times less than if it had to be outsourced.

He said an app to access the database on a smartphone is also in the plans, but that will take longer to create.

Although Pechart didn’t credit PublicSource as the driving force behind the department’s plan to create the database to replace two others along with filing cabinet systems that now store inspection reports, he credited the report with drawing attention to the problems and inefficiencies with the current system.

Amusement park operators must submit an inspection report for each ride every month while transient ride operators at fairs and carnivals must submit them every time they open at a new location.

This creates hundreds of thousands of inspection reports annually that the department must track, Pechart told the committee.

Complicating matters further are the various ways operators submit their report which include by fax, email, and mail.

“So by building this database, by providing inspection reports to the public and providing better government to amusement park operators in our state so they can more easily get their reports in to us, it will solve those problems that PublicSource identified,” he said.

Ride operators’ failure to submit timely inspection reports can result in civil or criminal penalties. But Pechart said they can only be cited for willful and repeated violations of the law. Pechart said that is difficult to prove and besides, it’s difficult for a ride operator to maintain his insurance if he is found to be a willful or repeated violator.

As a result, he said in 2010 and 2011, no fines were levied. In 2012, the department collected $310 in fines.

A more effective means to get ride operators to comply with the inspection requirements is issuing stop-use orders, Pechart said.

Department officials were unable to provide a count for how many of those were ordered last year without reviewing each of the inspection reports it received, they said.

But Walt Remmert, director of the Bureau of Ride and Measurement Safety, said no operator wants a ride to be shut down, especially at fairs that only run a limited number of days.

After the hearing, Pechart told Maher privately, “I’ll have a helluva database built next year.”

Maher took those words to heart. He said he was satisfied that the department is moving forward with improving its data systems and happy to see it plans on making the information publicly available.

“I’m a big fan of sunshine and the ability for someone to go online before going"  to an amusement park, he said. He added this is likely to result in operators complying with the law and filing reports.

Allen Bartlebaugh, owner of Bartlebaugh’s Amusements and director of the Pennsylvania State Showmen’s Association, which represents transient ride operators’ interests, said the public database also will be beneficial to ride operators.

“If Joe had a problem with his ride last week, then I’m going to check mine because now I know I might have a problem. So it’s going to help everybody.”

Bartlebaugh was sympathetic to the department’s dilemma in tracking the deluge of inspection reports it receives He said the reports arrive in a variety of ways and the short-staffed department simply gets backlogged.

“It just has to be recorded better,” he said.

As for the PublicSource report, Bartlebaugh dismissed it as blowing the issue out of proportion.

“It was some people looking for something to get notoriety,” he said. “There was nothing wrong. I’ve been a ride inspector for 30 years. Our safety record speaks for itself in Pennsylvania. We are second to none.”

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