January 7, 2014

In My Opinion: Fair evacuation plan needs review


---- — A year has come and gone with another great professional job done by our Clinton County Fair management, putting on its best yet entertainment. 

A week after the 2013 fair, I received a letter at the Center for Independence office in Plattsburgh. The letter consisted of observations by both family members in the grandstand and others in the reserved seating for the disabled on the front deck.

The deck and ramp designated for the disabled has been modified from previous years, and as far as the construction goes, there’s no fault in the work. The ramp complies with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and appears to be more than adequate to handle a large number of our disabled community.

But in the event that a weather incident, like lightning or a fast-moving thunderstorm should cause the need for a swift evacuation of the deck and grandstand, serious problems would occur.

The ramp leads up to the deck but also provides the gateway to the grandstand via the deck. Because of this, the deck space for the disabled was shortened to 18 feet from 35 feet and can now accommodate only three to four wheelchairs and one personal-aide chair each.

The space in front of the steps to the grandstand and along the sides of the ramp will be filled with parked baby carriages and strollers because families are unable to bring them up into the grandstands since there is no place to store them.

The ramp width was reduced to 12 inches and now itself has become a choke point if an emergency should arise. 

What does all this mean? It would be a nightmare for the authorities to try to evacuate 1,000 people in the grandstand down on to the deck and down the ramp, which would be plugged except for a 1-foot space between the carriages and strollers. 

The deck prior to the current modification had an additional emergency exit with a ramp. The present deck has no cover/roof from the elements.

People in an evacuation situation would not be carrying anything but their children. Soft drinks, food and snacks would most likely be dropped in the grandstand, steps on the deck and ramp. The danger of slipping, tripping and ultimately falling on the steps or deck and being trampled would be a disaster. 

Once the stampede started and people poured through the grandstands on to the choke point on the deck to the ramp, individuals might start climbing over the rails. Some might start throwing the strollers and carriages over the railings to clear a path, and the result would be that more people would be injured with the strollers and carriages trying to exit. 

This might not happen today, tomorrow or next year, but at some point in the future, it could happen.

We have a chance right now to take and make every effort to divert this accident with positive planning. 

I addressed the county legislators, who are the landlords of the fairgrounds. I was informed that the fair management is required to carry insurance so the county won’t be held liable. Not good enough. 

When and if a tragedy strikes and the worst scenario — loss of life, especially of children — the lawsuits will fly from the fairground management, the town, county level and New York state. When this starts, it will grow from ground level and escalate right into the Governor’s Office.

The questions will be asked: “Did you know about this?” and “When did you know it?”

Our elected and appointed officials in Clinton County have a fiduciary responsibility, as trustee of the people, to protect them:

▶ A manager entrusted to control property or to act on behalf of and for the benefit of another.

▶ Relating to the relationship between a trustee and the person or body for whom the trustee acts.

I recommend that the fairgrounds evacuation plan be reviewed by the state safety engineer and the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department for their evaluation and opinion.

John Farley is accessibility consultant for the North Country Center for Independence in Plattsburgh.