When a person thinks about the local fire department, images of fighting building or brush fires, rescuing victims from a rushing river or educating school children about fire safety often come to mind.
But in a municipality where there is an amusement park, add to that images of rescues from roller coasters, water rides and dark spaces designed to thrill visitors.
While the larger theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios may have a fleet of equipment and personnel to manage most of the fire and rescue needs of the theme park, fire departments in places like Gurnee, Ill., and Sandusky, Ohio, are called on to handle emergencies at theme parks in their districts.
John Kavanagh is the chief of the fire department in the village of Gurnee, north of Chicago. His department protects 60,000 full-time residents in a 30-square-mile area, part of which is Six Flags Great America, a 300-acre amusement park that opened in 1976 and attracts about 3 million visitors a year. In addition to the thrill rides and family entertainment within the park, Six Flags also has a water park, Hurricane Harbor.
“The majority of our calls from the park are for an ambulance to transport from the first-aid center,” Kavanagh said of medical emergencies like a fall or heat exhaustion. Since all the 48 full-time firefighters in the department are also licensed paramedics, the Gurnee Village Fire Department handles both fire and rescue situations.
“We don’t have to handle rescues very often fortunately,” he said, but added there was a day a few years ago when a load of visitors was stuck upside down on one of the park’s roller coasters. “Hopefully, that’s a once in a career occurrence.”
Kavanagh noted serving the park is a team effort that includes people with different skills from not only his department but neighboring fire departments as well as Six Flags employees. “It’s really all about partnerships,” he said, explaining the working relationship that his department has with the park personnel. “They are very open to us.”
Park personnel, he said, “understand the rides.” This is important for those rare emergencies involving the simplest carousel to the high-tech large coasters and other thrill rides. The fire department’s job is to work with the Six Flags staff to make sure the park’s layout and amenities are safe for visitors.
“We do two inspections a year in addition to the state inspecting the rides. We also do walkthrough inspections three to four times a year since there are always changes happening.”
This evolution of special events like Fright Fest, which generally keeps the park open on weekends from mid-September to Nov. 1, and new attractions keeps everyone on their toes, Kavanagh said.
The addition of attractions and new rides has been a rich part of the 150-year history of Cedar Point on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky.
Interim fire chief Jim Green, a 31-year veteran of the Sandusky Fire Department, recalls when the massive new roller coaster, the Magnum, opened in 1989. The coaster was promoted as the fastest and steepest complete-circuit coaster with a first hill that was more than 200-feet high.
“There is a turn called the pretzel that heads out toward the beach. When the ride first opened, the wind coming off the lake would slow the cars down, and if the wind was strong enough, the cars could get stuck in the turn.”
That, he said, led to a couple of those high-angle rescues that fire departments train for.
In addition to the quick action of the fire department, Cedar Point immediately made adjustments that stopped any further incidents on the Magnum.
With the addition of a water park to Cedar Point and the attraction of the Lake Erie beach on the property, water rescue has been an important part of the services provided to the park. The Sandusky department has 14 rescue divers as well as a fireboat. “Besides Cedar Point, we have a number of marinas in the area, so the fireboat is important for that.”
He explained all the department’s 47 career firefighters are trained to “operationally” prepare and hook up any equipment that might be needed for both wet and dry rescues. “But our tech guys are the ones who actually do the rescues.”
Green said his department has been trained through courses at Cleveland State University in technical rescue, which includes vehicle extrication, confined space rescue, rope rescue, trench rescue, structural collapse rescue, water rescue and wilderness search and rescue.
Cedar Point increases the population of 29,000 permanent residents in the nearly 15-square-mile area around Sandusky by 30,000 to 50,000 residents during the May to October period when Cedar Point is open.
Both the Gurnee and the Sandusky fire departments keep close tabs on the changes that a new season may bring. “We always look at all of the gates and get familiar with which ones will accommodate the equipment and which are closest to certain areas of the park,” Green said.