by Heather Eichenbaum Esq
Following passenger complaints about sitting for hours in airplanes on runways, recent laws in the United States establish requirements for passenger airlines regarding how long they can keep passengers “captive” in a grounded plane. Along this same vein, lawsuits are popping up alleging that passengers were stranded on amusement rides for too long, causing both emotional and physical distress.
What responsibilities does a park have concerning evacuation of riders? When a ride shuts down, how long can passengers be kept on the ride before problems arise?
First, every park must have in place a written evacuation policy and procedure for each ride, readily available at each ride. With no policy and procedure, your park is open to claims of improper training and negligence in operations. While ride operators can be trained only with regard to the policy and procedure for the ride they operate, ensure that your mechanics, security, medical personnel and management know the policy and procedure for every ride in the park. Of course, whatever your written policies and procedures, make sure they are followed.
Your policy and procedure for evacuation will vary ride by ride. With most small or low-level rides, evacuation can take place with little effort or danger to guests or employees. The primary procedure should simply be one that attempts to avoid a panic and ensure an orderly disembarkment. If a ride shuts down but there is no need for immediate evacuation (as in the case of an electrical fire or other immediate danger), allow parents, one or two at a time, to physically remove their children from the ride under the supervision of an employee so as to avoid the need for physical touching of children by park employees. Clearly if there is an immediate danger of harm, the necessity of rapid evacuation overrides the concern for physical touching and employees must then quickly evacuate the children.
On larger rides, such as coasters and flumes, evacuation is a far more complex and dangerous proposal. Written policies must establish how long passengers can be left on a ride before an evacuation plan is put into action. Assuming the stranded patrons are in no distress and there is no concern over physical safety of the patrons being left where they are, a period of no less than 30 minutes is reasonable before evacuation is considered.
More often than not, leaving passengers where they are, secured in a ride, is far safer than attempting a high-level evacuation, particularly where children are involved. Nonetheless, if patrons are experiencing emotional difficulty in the situation, there is a further safety concern, or there is a need for medical attention, a shorter time frame will apply. Moreover, in those situations, a park employee trained to deal with the crisis situation should remain with guests whenever physically possible. This employee must calm the patrons and be able to provide any necessary emergency medical attention until professional assistance arrives.
Where evacuation is necessary, those persons within your park most familiar with the ride and capable of professionally dealing with the evacuation should implement the evacuation procedure. Catwalks familiar to mechanics, who traverse them daily to perform maintenance and inspections, are foreign to ride operators. Clearly, putting an employee in an unfamiliar position of climbing those catwalks must be avoided.
In establishing your evacuation procedures, keep in mind that they should account for the emotional distress of children, adults, or both. Always evacuate any patron in emotional distress first, as they can cause further danger to themself or other stranded passengers if left in the situation. Next, or if all of the stranded patrons are calm, consider whether there are children involved. If there are two adults with a child, evacuate one adult, leaving the other with the child. Next, evacuate the child, followed by the final adult. This ensures the child is always with an adult. If only children are involved, start with the youngest child and make every effort to have that child greeted by a parent or guardian once evacuated. Where only children are stranded, have any employee remain with them, again whenever physically possible, to comfort them and keep them calm.
Finally, whenever a ride shuts down and patrons are stranded, for any period of time over five to 10 minutes, whether or not an evacuation takes place, complete incident reports to document what occurred. Although lawsuits may not be filed, it is always best to have documented what happened, how the patron(s) reacted at the time of the incident, and what efforts were made to remedy the situation (for example. offering free passes for a future visit).
Heather Eichenbaum is a member with Spector Gadon & Rosen PC, practicing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. As well as defending amusement venues, she also provides training on employment issues, safety, witness testimony and compliance with disability laws. Legal counsel to, and a board member of, NAARSO, she is also a member of the NJAA, IAAPA, OABA, IISF, Defense Research Institute and various bar and trial lawyer associations in the United States Should you need legal assistance, reach her at: +1 215-241-8856, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org