Safety center stage at fair after accident

dkane@newsobserver.comOctober 26, 2013 

  • Today at the fair

    Hours: Gates, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Midway, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

    Tickets: Adults (13-64), $9; children (6-12), $4; military with ID, $5; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.

    Dorton Arena concert: Eli Young Band 7:30 p.m., $15.

    Forecast: Sunny, mid- to upper-60s

    Friday’s attendance: 82,163

— Away from the thrills, scares and dares at the North Carolina State Fair’s midway, firefighters from the eastern half of the state took to a small stage and created an oasis of safety for hundreds of young children and their parents.

This wasn’t the standard talk about fire safety. The five departments’ shows featured songs, dances, puppets and “technology,” such as an enlargement machine that turned one youngster into a 300-pound fireman, all to teach kids how to be safe in a fire.

It was a nice place to be on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon after an accident on a ride called the Vortex injured five people Thursday night, thought Alisa Swenson of Willow Spring, who watched the show with her husband, Brian, and four-year-old daughter, Savannah.

“It really caught her attention,” Alisa Swenson said of her daughter. “She really likes puppets, and the songs were catchy.”

The accident didn’t appear to deter many fairgoers from lining up for wild rides with names like Extreme, Mega Drop and Cliff Hanger. Another stomach-churning ride also named Vortex, but different in design, had at least 50 fairgoers waiting for their spin in the seats on Saturday afternoon.

The Vortex remained shut down with deputies patrolling to make sure no fairgoers got near it. Fairgoers did stop and gawk, though. The ride had turned into an impromptu sideshow.

Back at the fire-safety stage along a much quieter strip of the fairgrounds, several members of the Chapel Hill Fire Department operated puppets dressed as firefighters who lip-synced to vintage rock ’n’ roll songs with the lyrics changed to spread their message. “Let’s Twist Again,” for example, became “Let’s Test Again,” a reminder to check the smoke detectors at least once a month, and change the batteries each year.

Kamie Edwards, a volunteer with the department, served as the show’s host, which was a difficult role because she also needed to keep the 30-minute routine on time so the puppeteers were ready for each song. The show ended with one of the puppeteers, firefighter Pat Spencer, gathering the kids around to help him put on his gear. That’s important because the kids need to see what firefighters look like in full dress with mask and air tank so they won’t run away from them in a fire.

The fire safety show is a long-sought dream come true for Jan Parker, a fire prevention specialist for the Office of State Fire Marshal. Parker had wanted a fire safety program for kids at the fair back in the 1990s, when she worked for the Raleigh Fire Department. But the department didn’t have the money to rent space at the fair.

This year, the State Fair came to Parker, offering the space free if she could provide the talent. That talent was there, as more and more fire departments are coming up with novel and fun ways to teach fire safety to kids.

Jose Ricca of Wilson, who brought his son Lucas, 2, and daughter Isabella, 7, to the show, said he plans to come again next year. His son stayed entertained throughout the 45 minute show, not an easy thing.

“I think it’s very important,” he said. “Maybe it won’t happen to us, but if it happens, they will be ready. They will be prepared.”

The fair comes to an end Sunday, with attendance not likely to break a record. As of Friday, fair attendance had hit 707,120, well short of the average turnout of 882,012 for the past 10 years. Fair officials say the chilly wet days at the fair’s outset are largely to blame.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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