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Parasailing Regulations Bill Launched In Senate

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – An effort to impose minimum regulations on the parasailing industry, aided by video of a ghastly accident last summer that went viral on the Internet, is starting to get off the ground in the state Legislature.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Thursday unanimously backed a measure (SB 320) that sponsor Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said should lessen the chance Florida will again find itself showcased worldwide as a risky place for amusements. It would prohibit parasailing operations when sustained winds are 20 mph or higher or when lightning storms are within seven miles.

The video involved a parasailing accident last summer in Panama City Beach that seriously injured two Indiana teens.

“When you see those storm clouds coming up (on the video), and those two young girls slammed against buildings and balconies, and then going up against power lines and finally landing against on an SUV, you think why is this happening,” Sachs said after the committee hearing. “That dramatized the need for safety regulations and I think that, unfortunately, that had to happen before a lot of people said, ‘You know what, we need to do this’.”

Similar measures — opposed by the parasailing industry mostly because of increased insurance costs — failed in the last six years.

The House version of the bill (HB 347) was unanimously supported last week by the Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee, and it is now headed to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

“We are not trying to punish the industry. … We only want to make this a safe activity,” said Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, the sponsor of the House bill.

The proposal — named the “White-Miskell Act” — was aided Thursday by appearances at the Capitol by Alexis Fairchild, who was one of the two Indiana teens injured July 1, and by family members of Amber May White, 15, of Belleview, who died in 2007 after a line snapped on a parasail, resulting in her hitting the roof of a hotel.

“If this law had been passed when it was brought up the first time I wouldn’t be standing here,” Fairchild, who suffered head trauma and had to undergo surgery to her spine, told Senate committee members. “If it was passed the second time, I wouldn’t be standing here. I don’t want another person to be standing here.”

Shannon Kraus, White’s mother, added that lawmakers have a “moral obligation” to approve the legislation.

The other part of the bill is named after Kathleen Miskell, a 28-year-old Connecticut woman who died in 2012 after she fell from a harness while parasailing over the ocean off Pompano Beach.

Her father told CBS4’s Carey Codd, by phone, from Connecticut that he wants the industry regulated to protect others.

“We’re not trying to stop the industry. We’re trying to make the industry as safe as it possibly can be so it becomes an enjoyable activity for people,” said Jim Mulcahy.

The measure has the support of people in the industry, said Larry Meddock, executive director of the Water Sports Industry Association.

“They’ve accepted the fact that they need to have best practices to try to do a better job,” Meddock said.

Meddock said operators have come around to “reality” after being advised by the U.S. Coast Guard that if regulations backed by people in the industry are not in place, the federal agency would impose rules, due to the “frequency of incidents” in recent years.

“That message was sent out loud and clear,” Meddock said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are about 100 active commercial operators in Florida, most along the coasts, with one at Walt Disney World on Bay Lake in Orange County.

From Jan. 1, 2001 through Oct. 30, 2013, the state has recorded 21 parasailing incidents that have resulted in 23 injuries and six fatalities. Nearly half were due in part to wind conditions, with others because of equipment or operator error.

The legislative measure would require owners of vessels engaged in commercial parasailing to carry at least $1 million in bodily injury liability coverage, for the boats to be equipped with a functional VHF marine transceivers and separate electronic devices capable of providing access to weather forecasts and current weather conditions, and for operators to record the weather whenever on the water with passengers.

Putting the information in a log was among the hurdles that have kept past efforts to impose regulations on the industry from advancing in the Legislature, Sachs noted.

“It’s been a hurdle, but I figure if they can swipe a credit card, they can log the weather,” Sachs said.

The effort to impose regulations was aided last summer when Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, advised those in the parasailing industry to talk to Sachs after he heard from constituents who had witnessed the accident involving Fairchild and her friend Sidney Good.

During a meeting in November with about 250 owners and operators, Meddock said, nobody objected when asked if they had a problem with the proposed legislation.

The measure doesn’t impose regulations on the types of equipment used by parasailing operators, but Sachs said the insurance regulation should force those in the industry to demonstrate they are up to date on safety to get their policies.

The proposal still must get support from the Senate Commerce and Tourism and Community Affairs committees.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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