Because thousands of people, animals and vehicles pass through the gates at the Seneca County Fair each day, injuries and accidents are bound to happen. As always, the weather can be unpredictable.
But fair-goers can be assured teams of trained individuals are working to keep order and maintain safety for everyone on the grounds. The public safety building, a small sheriff's department dispatch center and the fair board office are only a few steps apart at the fairgrounds.
For 2011, the weather was an issue even before the gates opened to the public as about five inches of rain fell in the early morning hours Saturday. The track at the fairgrounds was flooded, and some of the campers found themselves surrounded by water. Dan Stahl, Emergency Management Agency director, is in charge of coordinating disaster services, including maintaining communications. When the sheriff's department dispatch called him out at about 3 a.m. Saturday, he was surprised by so much water on the roads.
PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER
Sheriff Bill Eckelberry (standing) touches base Tuesday with reserve deputies Ray Saalman (left) and Jim Wise.
Although the midway at the fairgrounds has flooded in the past, Stahl said the fair board has made many improvements, such as new sewer lines and new catch basins. Fortunately, the forecasts for the rest of fair week did not indicate any severe weather, except for heat advisories.
If a tornado warning is issued, campers and large, open barns are not safe places to be. Stahl said the fairgrounds only has two buildings that would offer safe shelter and only for a limited number of people. He watches the weather information online and consults with his Skywarn observers to stay abreast of the conditions. If a weather event develops, he alerts everyone on the grounds about the threat in hopes that most people would leave the premises.
"Generally speaking, if the weather's looking bad, we know ahead of time. We're going to make the authorities here aware of what's going on," he said. "We've all got the portable radios right here. We can communicate with each other."
Part of the fairgrounds lies within the city limits of Tiffin and part of it is in Hopewell Township, so both departments are present at the fair, but they also must respond to calls elsewhere in the city or township. Stahl said a different fire department is on duty at the fair each day. Two departments come in for events on the race track.
"We have EMS personnel, we have fire departments' first responders onsite to help out with situations during the fair. Of course, most of the fairgrounds is in the city, so the Tiffin unit is in here to make transports and things like that," Stahl said. "With the heat emergency, people out moving around, injuries, accidents - EMS is pretty well prepared."
Occasional electrical or camper fires, falls and "animal issues" can occur. Stahl said the most unusual accident they had was a teen falling onto the horn of a mock steer while practicing roping skills. The young man had to transported to the hospital, but he did not suffer serious injuries.
Power outages are another possibility. Stahl said ride operators bring their own power sources. The public safety building has a stand-by generator, but that is not the case for the rest of the buildings. Stahl said the fair does have industrial electricians on site all week.
"When we first moved out here, we had brown-outs all the time. They upgraded all the power service out here," he said.
Fair board members Bob Rainey and Dave Hoover said they also have done much to improve drainage at the site. Their most common sewer problems come from paper towels flushed in the restrooms or grease from food stands that is poured into drains.
Rainey said people with tractors have been pulling mired vehicles out of the parking area, which is more of an inconvenience than a danger. All the board members try to remove hazards and make repairs before the gates open. By law, electrical boxes are locked.
During the fair, 4-H members compete to keep the aisles clean in the livestock buildings to prevent falls. Board members carry radios and walk or ride carts around the grounds to keep everything moving smoothly.
"All the operators of equipment have radios, and wherever there's a program or show going on, the person in charge of the show has a radio," Rainey said.
The radio calls come into Rainey's office, which also is connected to the sheriff's office. When a storm approaches, a warning is relayed through the radios and broadcast on the public address system throughout the fairgrounds. The rides and games are shut down. Special procedures are in place for ride accidents.
Benches in many locations allow people to rest and cool off. Rainey said overheated people sometimes come into the air-conditioned fair office to cool down.
"We have a big fan down there in the one show arena ... a lot of people set in that to keep cool," Rainey said. "We also supply the free shuttles, which a lot of people appreciate."
Don Kelbley, Emergency Medical Services director, was filling a large thermos jug with diluted Gatorade and ice to keep emergency workers hydrated. He said Gatorade is more helpful than plain water for replenishing electrolytes and carbohydrates. He pointed out EMS people may get a 911 call any time, so they need to be ready. They may not get breaks when they need them.
"Just because the fair's going on. ... People who don't come to the fair still need that 911 protection," Kelbley said.
Kelbley carries a radio and brings extra first aid supplies for the fair. Although few serious ailments or accidents occur during the fair, many of the people attending have existing health issues that can be worsened by the heat. Kelbley said a white shirt can be more comfortable than a dark one.
"The biggest thing is heat exhaustion. People are not keeping hydrated. They should always have a water bottle." Kelbley said.
His advice for people is to check the heat index, consider what they will be doing and how long they might be out in the heat. They should carry medication with them in case they do not get home in time to take it when it is due. Athletic shoes instead of flip flops can make a difference for walking around. Blisters, cuts and exposure to germs from manure should be considered, as well as slipping on muddy or wet pavement.
"Come out here and have a good time, but be a little bit prepared," Kelbley said.
At the time of this interview, EMS had responded to a minor allergic reaction in one of the barns and a few bee stings. Choking is always a possibility, especially at the submarine sandwich eating competition. Kelbley said no incidents had occurred with the amusement rides. Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture do inspections and write a report for each ride.
"They're certified by the state. Every time they set up, they have to be re-certified," Kelbley said.
Other inspectors check food vendors' licenses to make sure they are up to date. The fire departments were checking food vendors and fair buildings to make sure all the fire safety issues were addressed. Kelbley said it is a challenge to have enough EMS staff on hand.
"At the harness racing, we got swamped down there almost every evening ... We're so thankful that Tiffin Fire is right next door. We do mutual aid with them. They're more than willing to come and help us out," he said.
Security is another issue at the fair. Ray Saalman and Jim Wise are reserve deputies who patrol the grounds during the day. Regular deputies must be available for regular calls in the county. Saalman said fair attendance has been good, and no serious incidents have occurred. The deputies have golf carts to make their way around the parking area and to check at gates.
"We had nine deputies out here (Monday) night ... The more guys roaming the grounds, the less problems we have," Saalman said.
Good fences tend to prevent people from sneaking in without paying. Saalman said unsupervised youths who congregate at the fair sometimes cause trouble.
"We make the kids call their parents to come and get them. We turn them over to their parents," he said.
Stahl said the fair also is an opportunity to display equipment to the public and answer questions. Sometimes young adults and teens ask about training needed to get involved in Skywarn, law enforcement or EMS.
"That's one reason we try to set up right here so we're available to answer some of those questions," Stahl said. "Law enforcement, fire and EMS on the fairgrounds - that's your normal responders, anyhow. And we're here with emergency management, Skywarn guys and amateur radio operators. We're prepared for anything that comes up. If we need to get additional help, we will."