Inflatable “bounce houses” are popular fixtures at town celebrations, kids’ birthdays parties and festivals.

“It’s an inexpensive way for families to have a bunch of kids over,” said Tim Meurrens, the owner of Magical Moonwalks and Party Rentals in Lyman. “People are happy to see you come and sad to see you go.”

It just isn’t kids. Meurrens said the oldest renter he has had was 80. The person wanted an inflatable water slide, not for his grandkids, but simply because “they always wanted one.”

But the safe use of these inflatables has recently been called into question after a rash of accidents across the U.S.

This year, more than 40 people — overwhelmingly children — have been injured in 10 incidents that have involved inflatable devices blowing away, collapsing, or malfunctioning.

In early June, one woman was seriously injured and 12 others were hurt when a gust of wind sent three inflatables flying into a crowd of people in Oceanside, N.Y. After that incident, the rental company insisted the device was secured with two operators standing by.

Many of the incidents have been blamed on lack of supervision or insufficient tethering to the ground.

Tom Davis, the owner of Waterville’s Are You Ready to Party??, said the reasons for such malfunctions are simple — “laziness,” making for increased attention to what should be an uncommon problem.

“The rental industry has sent out more notices (saying) that we need to tether these down,” Davis said. “I think there’s more risk from having too many kids in a bounce house than having it blow away.”

Meurrens said he has driven by events where inflatables aren’t tied down.

“You have people that go to Sam’s Club, buy a bounce house and think they’re in business,” he said. “There’s a reason why (inflatable) slides come with loopholes and straps.”

Meurrens said he provides 18-inch stakes for his inflatables, which he says are more than large enough to secure them.

Randy Cook of Adventure Climbing said he uses 32-inch stakes that are one inch in diameter. He said his company oversees rentals from top to bottom, mandating its workers operate the devices wherever they go.

“I’m a certified inspector, so I know what’s proper,” he said. “With our company, we go out, set the equipment up and operate it.”

Meurrens said such stories have raised public awareness of the possibility of accidents. “I get hit with more questions than I already did,” he said. “That means it’s working.”

Inspection and detection

In Maine, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is responsible for the inspection of inflatables. Rich McCarthy, of the Plans Review Division, said the office has four certified inspectors that scrutinize more than 1,000 rides annually, from roller coaster to inflatables, every summer. They all get the same sticker if they check out.

“People need to understand it’s safe when they are used properly,” he said.

While Maine has dodged major accidents — none of the 26 reported injuries from all amusement rides in 2010 were serious — it’s unclear how many bounce houses may be escaping any safety inspection whatsoever.

Some vendors say they didn’t realize an inspection was required.

“They don’t have it, do they?” said Marilyn Brown, of Skowhegan’s Tooney-Looney Rentals, when asked if her devices get inspected. “I didn’t know that.”

Brown said she has been in business for five years, and rents out seven bounce houses.

McCarthy said since there such a wide array of renters, it is virtually impossible to find all of them.

“When we’re out there and see bounces, we go see people,” he said. “Once we get the bigger groups, they pretty well self-police.”

Davis, in Waterville, who gets inspections, said his prices are higher than most, but the price of assured safety can’t be overlooked.

He said being registered hurts his business a little because suppliers of bounce houses include established companies that pay for state inspections, others who don’t, and those who purchase inflatables and rent them to friends.

“I believe we get the vast majority,” McCarthy said about the state’s inspections. “Are we getting 100 percent? I can’t say we’re getting that.”

McCarthy said in 2010, there were 197 inflatables inspected successfully in Maine. Lacking an inspection could trigger fines of up to $1,000 per show.

But Meurrens said there must be thousands of inflatables for rent in the state — and he, though he has 18 bounce houses and is in his third season of operation, hadn’t heard about the program until this year.

“Some of my employees found out by accident at a festival,” he said.

Meurrens said he has been in touch with the Fire Marshal’s Office about registering. According to McCarthy, inspections cost $300 for the first five rides, under which inflatables are classified. Each ride thereafter costs $50.

The cost is acceptable — and the stickers will be advertised — at Meurrens’ business.

“It’s a great selling point,” he said. “The minute that happens, it’s going on my website.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5662

[email protected]

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