Fall festival safety tips for churches

by Carrie Brown McWhorter/The Alabama Baptist , posted Friday, October 23, 2015 (4 years ago)

Fall festivals as outreach events can be fun but experts say proper precautions are vital. This photo of a fall festival at Northpark Baptist Church in Trussville, Ala., was taken in 2014.
Photo provided by The Alabama Baptist
JASPER, Ala. (BP) -- Fall festivals can be fun but broken bones, food poisoning and burns are not. That's why churches should take steps to protect themselves and their guests from unnecessary risks during special outreach events, experts say.

Before hosting any special event, a church should first make sure its insurance policy covers activities that are outside the normal ministry schedule.

"From a risk management standpoint, what often happens is that churches don't think about exposures. They are only thinking about having fun. Danger doesn't even cross their mind," said Arthur Williams, an account executive with insurance firm Byars Wright Inc. in Jasper, Ala.

However, some insurance policies have special events exclusions, which mean if an injury or accident happens during the event the church has no insurance protection. A church needs to know the specifics of what its insurance policy will and will not cover.

"Check with your agent and confirm there is no exclusion and that the church does have liability and medical payments coverage for special events held on the premises," Williams said. "Most of the time, you should be able to get your insurer to include that within your policy if it's not already included."

Planning team responsibilities

Once insurance coverage is confirmed, the event planning team should consider every aspect of the event and take precautions to improve the safety of the participants and volunteers.

If vendors or volunteers who are not affiliated with the church will be involved, it is important to vet those who will be on campus.

"One important question is do you know the volunteers," Williams said. "In terms of church insurance, volunteers who work with children have usually undergone a background check. Make sure you know the people who are working with children."

Outside vendors, like those who rent inflatable bounce houses or food carts, should have some insurance coverage for their business, Williams said. He suggested checking an operator's references and insurance coverage ahead of time so there are no surprises later.

Food safety concerns

No festival is complete without treats, which means food safety concerns are another area that should be addressed in event planning.

Mark Sestak, deputy director of the division of food, milk and lodging for the Alabama Department of Public Health, suggested three key precautions that can help avoid food borne illnesses at special events.

One is proper temperature control of foods like meat and poultry, dairy products, cooked vegetables and pasta. Hot foods should be held at 135 degrees or above and cold foods at 41 degrees or below for optimal safety, Sestak said.

The health of volunteers or employees also is important. While it might seem obvious, Sestak said any workers or volunteers who have had fever, sore throat or symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea within the last 24 hours shouldn't be involved in food preparation activities.

A third precaution is to set up hand-washing or sanitizing stations, especially in locations near food.

"Frequent hand-washing and no bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods by using gloves or tongs are very important in reducing the risk of food borne illness," Sestak said.

Hayrides and bonfires

Since fall festival activities are often set up outdoors, supervision is a critical part of a successful event.

For example hayrides are a popular activity at fall events, but injuries from falls off hay trailers can be significant, ranging from broken bones and concussions to fatalities. Even simple precautions, like making riders sit still, improve rider safety. It also is important for the driver to be an experienced adult and for the equipment to be in good shape with adequate safety lighting and warning signs. Hayride operators also should stay off roadways and find alternate routes with little or no traffic, said Robyn Bradley Bryan with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Another common activity in the fall is a bonfire, which also requires careful supervision especially when children are present. Local fire departments can provide specific requirements and might even help manage the event.

Generally the ideal size for a bonfire area and flames is 3 feet around by 3 feet in height, according to Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. Fires should only be started with wood and lighters. Highly flammable accelerators like lighter fluid or gasoline should not be used. It also is important to keep extinguishing equipment (buckets of water, garden hoses or fire extinguishers) nearby. Once the event is over, the embers should be completely extinguished before everyone leaves the area.

In addition to supervising specific activities, supervising traffic flow and walking paths throughout the event is essential to safety for everyone, especially young children.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance recommends having separate areas for parking and activities. For example at a Trunk-or-Treat event designate an area for decorated cars and an area for visiting cars to minimize hazards. Supervisors should monitor the area where cars are moving and keep children as far away as possible.

Help from local police

Traffic control is one area where local police might be willing to help. Sharon Anderson, a member of the planning team for the Rock Run/Spring Garden Community Fall Festival in Cherokee County, Ala.,said the police department is involved in their event which helps with safety and traffic flow. The fire department comes to help as well.

With planning, preparation and proper supervision, any church or organization can have a successful fall event that connects them with the community in a fresh way which is often the goal, said Anderson, whose husband, Michael, is pastor of Salem Baptist Church, Piedmont.

"Ours is a small community event with nine churches coming together to plan a day of fun," she said. "Outreach is definitely one of our goals. Many of our local churches have seen people who came to the fall festival and then started attending church, so we believe we are having a real impact on people."

Carrie Brown McWhorter is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist.
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