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Summer is almost here. No one knows that more than the country’s amusement park and theme park operators. Scores of visitors will pass through their gates, looking to experience the latest roller coasters, thrill rides, water slides, or other forms of entertainment. Security teams will be put to the test by large crowds, hot temperatures, unpredictable behavior and unanticipated situations. Here are some key elements to look out for and a few tips to help get ready for the season.
When something goes wrong at an amusement park and someone is injured, it makes headlines. But can you even recall the last time something like that happened? It is a rare occurrence and yet, the perceived threat of a mechanical failure or other accident is real for many visitors. For some, it is the fear of that threat that makes the theme park experience that much more thrilling. And yet, the fear is not based on fact, which is that amusement park rides are extremely safe. But there is another element that creates an all-too-real threat and yet it is one most don’t consider: humans.
A quick Google search of Amusement Park Accidents and you’ll find lists of horrible events, many of which lead to deaths. However, a close inspection reveals that they are few and far between. Other lists show that many problems that arise at theme parks come from people not taking the proper precautions based on their own health. Parks enjoy their highest attendance during the summer months when temperatures throughout the country rise to 90 degrees or more, sometimes hitting triple digits. Combine that with paved walkways through the park, that are normally blacktop and you have scorching heat that can really take a toll on park visitors, especially those prone to heart issues. And yet many people will enter a part ill prepared to adjust to the hot conditions. They will not drink enough water, won’t wear the proper clothing, won’t remove themselves from the heat nor will they take a break to cool off. The result is that security and medical personnel are called on often to assist people who faint, get dehydrated or worse yet, suffer a heart attack or other serious condition. Most, if not all, of those situations could be avoided if people heeded warnings, and respected their own limits. Operators must remember that many people will do neither.
Several years ago at a theme park in Ohio, a woman was riding a modest version of a flight simulator. The ride looked like a large octopus and at the end of each “tentacle,” there was a cockpit in which two people could sit. In between the riders was a joystick that controlled the cockpit. Pull up…the tentacle and the cockpit went up. Push down, they both went down. Move the stick to the left or the right, and the cockpit would spin in that direction 360 degrees. So, riders could spin themselves upside down if they wanted. This woman decided, since she was not accompanied by another rider, to switch seats in the middle of the ride. How she got out from under the shoulder harness is not known. What is known is that at some point while making the move, she hit the joystick, causing the cockpit to spin, turning itself upside down. With nothing holding her in, she fell and hit the pavement below, suffering injuries that eventually lead to her death. An autopsy further revealed that she had a very high blood alcohol content level. It is this kind of unanticipated event, caused by a lack of judgement by the park visitor, that creates the most stress for a park operator.
While no one can predict the type of situation described above, amusement park operators must still be prepared for critical incidents. We work with theme parks throughout the world to help them develop a crisis management plan. The first step is to identify threats. We look to determine where the park is vulnerable to foul play or at the extreme, an attack. Many times, we find that a fresh set of eyes and ears can discover vulnerabilities that had long been ignored since “nothing ever happened there before.” Maybe it’s an old fence that could easily be passed through or a system of checking employee IDs that isn’t being thoroughly enforced. As we list the threats, we look then at what the risk levels are. If there is a back door to a building that opens to the outside of the park, and there is no surveillance in place, what are the risk scenarios that could create big problems? For example, an inside employee could open the door and let outside accomplices into the park undetected as part of a theft ring. Anticipating threats and knowing what risks they pose helps to determine the priorities for which issues to tackle first.
No one wants to think about what could happen if something goes terribly wrong at a theme park. No one except security personnel, that is. Practicing different scenarios, perhaps like the one in the Ohio theme park example above, can be a great asset as operators train their personnel to react. Like with anything, the more you practice, the better and more comfortable you become with what it is you are practicing. That is true with security too. Keeping teams on alert by running scheduled, and impromptu, drills will give them the confidence they will need in order to respond effectively if a real situation arises.
Amusement parks are part of a larger, local community. They operate in a town or city and they hire local people. It is very important that operators get to know, and even support, their local law enforcement and emergency services leaders. An amusement park in a rural area, for example, creates many stressful aspects to maintaining law and order for local police. No longer are they there to serve and protect just the local citizens. Their job is intensified greatly when the peak season hits and the number of incidents can rise with the influx of a large temporary population. Getting to know the local law officers most likely to respond to calls from the park, reviewing the crisis management plans with them and including them in practice drills is a smart way to prepare.
Amusement park operators cannot anticipate every situation that can lead to an incident. But keeping the crisis management plan updated, providing ongoing training for staff, practicing emergency situations, and being aware that the human element can cause the most uncertainty will go a long way towards providing a safe, secure and enjoyable season for park guests.
What do you see as the biggest threat to amusement park security this year?Tweet