Laughing and shrieking passengers on carnival rides are as much a part of Iowa’s county fairs as the groomed cows, lambs and pigs lining the barns.
At the Greater Jefferson County Fair in Fairfield on Wednesday, fairgoers ran from one ride to the next, but many were unaware of the system in place to ensure the safety of rides.
“We were kind of scared,” said Kadie Roberts, 14, clutching her friend’s shoulders, who was still reeling from one of the fair’s biggest rides, the Paratrooper. “Every time the ride moved we could hear something rattling,” Roberts said.
“That freaked us out,” added her friend, Phoebe Brakova, 13.
What Roberts and Brakova didn’t know was that they could check to see if the ride was safe.
Every amusement ride in the state of Iowa is inspected each year before it is allowed to operate. Passengers can look for a 2011 sticker granted to well-maintained rides by inspectors. The sticker is usually located near the operator’s controls.
There are 11 trained inspectors in the Iowa Workforce Development’s Division of Labor Services who go through training with the not-for-profit National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
“They check everything — electrical, mechanical, all of it,” said Kerry Koonce, spokeswoman for the Iowa Workforce Development.
According to Koonce, there have been no fatalities on fair rides in Iowa for at least 20 years. “Iowa has very few accidents,” said Koonce.
If inspectors find problems with a ride, they will conduct spot-testing of that carnival company throughout the season to see that repairs are made.
Spot testing has proved to be necessary.
In 2009, an inspector found maintenance issues with many rides at the Cedar County Fair in Tipton. Days before and even during the fair, the inspector shut down the rides, provided by River City Amusements of Cleveland, Texas. Thousands of fairgoers were left disappointed.
“It was a struggle for us,” said Dave Mohr of Tipton, president of the Cedar County Fair Board. “We didn’t have any control over what happened.”
Shortly thereafter, an inspector found River City Amusements at five more fairs without making repairs, according to Koonce. Inspectors followed the carnival, shutting down rides and pre-warning the company’s next stops.
Mohr said he trusted that the inspector did what was necessary to keep the about 20,000 people who attended the fair that year safe.
“That’s the inspector’s job,” he said, adding the fair board will not hire River City Amusements again.
In 2010, Mohr and the fair board tried renting inflatable rides, but found they were not a hit.
“A lot of people would agree, if there’s no carnival, the fair loses some of its luster,” said Mohr.
The Cedar County Fair will have a carnival again July 13 to 17 this year with D&B Shows, a family carnival from Lone Tree. Bonnie and David Tripses started the business 35 years ago and have only seen one accident in which there were no serious injuries, Bonnie Tripses said.
She said all of the rides have already passed inspections this year, including the Tempest, Tilt-a-Whirl, Octopus and Scrambler. For the Tripseses, this year’s fair will be the anniversary of their first date to the fair in Tipton in 1969.
While the Cedar County Fair has a carnival booked, other county fairs are having trouble attracting a carnival of any kind to bring rides.
“It’s godawful expensive to run a carnival,” said Thomas Barnes, director of the Association of Iowa Fairs. He said the list of traveling carnivals to which he refers association members has three fewer carnivals than last year.
“Unfortunately, it’s getting to be more common,” Barnes said.
Since many fairs have conflicting dates in late June and early July, “carnivals go where the money is,” he said.
About half of the 106 fairs in Iowa are without a carnival this year, Barnes said.
Barnes said these fairs are focusing their efforts on attractions other than carnivals, but that “it’s been tough.” Fairs are a substantial source of revenue for Iowa communities — the economic impact of fairs statewide came close to $2.5 million last year, up 3 percent from 2009, according to the Association of Iowa Fairs.
No one has asked to see a sticker of proof from the traveling carnival at the Greater Jefferson County Fair in Fairfield, J.K.L. Rides & Concessions of Oskaloosa.
“Most people are like, here’s a ride, let’s go!” said ride operator Cody Vanderbeek of Oskaloosa.
He said the rides were inspected three weeks ago in Keota without any problems.
“I have never had anyone ask about inspections,” Vanderbeek said, letting a slew of teenagers through the gate and onto the Octopus.
Two teenage girls danced in their seats to blaring carnival tunes, waving down at 13-year-old Macy Holderbaum as they waited for the ride to begin.
“I think there’s a risk,” said Holderbaum, “but I feel more comfortable knowing the rides are inspected.”
Kenny Scally, 14, had a different perspective, breathless after experiencing the Paratrooper.
“It freaks you out,” he said “but I know you’re probably safer than if you’re driving a car.”