Tent collapse raises question of permit, inspection laws

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Posted: Aug 06, 2015 4:18 PM
Tent collapse raises question of permit, inspection laws

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — After a circus tent collapse that killed two spectators, questions have arisen about how the circus operator could have prepared for and put on a show at the town's fairgrounds without getting a permit or having the giant canopy inspected.

A sampling of laws in several states finds the regulations for how circuses and other outdoor entertainment venues are permitted and inspected vary widely. Some are handled by local governments, others by the state, and the process can involve any number of departments, from fire and police to insurance, agriculture, labor or building inspectors.

New Hampshire Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said it was the responsibility of the circus operator, Walker International Events of Sarasota, Florida, to seek a permit from the town of Lancaster. If the permit was issued, it would have been up to Lancaster officials to ensure the tent was inspected.

Asked if he thought the state law should be reviewed, Degnan said: "Wholeheartedly.

"In any situation, you want to sit back and analyze all of the information to see if there's the ability to make any improvements," Degnan said.

A 41-year-old man and his 6-year-old daughter were killed Monday when a severe storm with winds up to 75 mph blew through the Lancaster Fairgrounds, toppling the tent just minutes after about 100 people had settled in to watch the first of two planned shows. Fifty people were injured.

In response to a Right To Know request by The Associated Press, Lancaster fire officials confirmed Walker International did not have the place-of-assembly permit required by state law for the performance but had received the permit for shows in 2010 and 2011. Degnan said Walker International had a permit for its shows recently in neighboring Colebrook.

The company hasn't returned calls or emails seeking comment.

The chairman of the Lancaster Select Board, Leon Rideout, said the board will discuss changes to local ordinances regarding permitting and inspections.

State Sen. Regina Birdsell, who chairs the Public and Municipal Affairs, put the onus on the circus operator but said she'll ask her colleagues next week if state laws regarding inspections and permits need to be strengthened.

"A little bit of what I've been hearing is that they were not up to state standards. If not, why not?" Birdsell said. "Then we'll talk to local officials, find out if they have local statutes and if not, start from there. From the state side, if we need to tweak it, we will."

Some high-profile accidents involving outdoor entertainment venues have already spurred change.

In Indiana, officials adopted state regulations requiring inspections of temporary outdoor stage rigging structures that hold overhead lighting, sound and other equipment after seven people died and nearly 100 were injured in August 2011 when high winds toppled the rigging and sent the stage roof onto fans awaiting a concert at the state fair. Smaller fairs and festivals are exempt from most regulations if they create a buffer zone around a stage.

In Maine, where a 17-year-old girl died in a hayride accident last fall, outdoor amusement venues like traveling circuses are required to obtain a state permit every year. State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said his office inspects tents for things like fireproofing, adequate exits and emergency lighting but doesn't have the expertise to examine whether it's been set up properly. The office relies on the installers to follow the manufacturer's specifications, Thomas said.

Rhode Island leaves permitting up to municipalities, while in Vermont, Joseph Benard, deputy director of the Division of Fire Safety, said a handful of municipalities do their own inspections under an agreement with the state. Any tent over 1,200 square feet requires a permit, but Benard said inspectors in his division have to prioritize.

"We don't inspect every tent that's erected," he said. "A wedding with 75 people in a 2,000-square-foot tent, we wouldn't be going to that."

Bob Johnson, president and CEO of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, said his experience has been that the municipality takes an active role.

"It's standard protocol throughout the country," Johnson said. "There's usually someone that would come out and do some sort of inspection."

There can be anywhere from 10 to 30 circus troupes traveling the country at any given time, Johnson said, performing in small towns and fairs in rapid succession. Walker International has performances scheduled on all but two days over the next three weeks, bouncing from two sites in Maine before hitting nine towns in upstate New York.

Johnson said the roustabouts can erect a big top in a matter of hours. Performers do two shows, the tent comes down and the circus leaves town to repeat the process.

"These are folks who are well-trained and know what they're doing," Johnson said. "You'd be amazed at how quickly they can be set up."

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Associated Press Writers Amy Anthony in Providence, Rhode Island; Tom Davies in Indianapolis; Alanna Durkin in Augusta, Maine; Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vermont; and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.