Good Intentions

If your community is like most, you may either be contacted or have already been contacted by a private community/citizens group about a new playground project that the members think is needed or that they want. How you handle this opportunity is critically important to how successful the venture will be.

First, let’s assume that everyone is on board with the need for a new or updated playground. Fast-forward to the end of the process--who is the owner? You are! Who carries the responsibility to maintain the equipment and protective surfacing, inspect it, and make any necessary repairs? You do! And who is responsible for the legal liability if any injuries occur on the equipment? You are!

The following are seven steps to make installing a playground a success:

1. Education

Everyone needs to understand that there are national standards regarding a safe playground environment, and many states have adopted these standards as law. The standards are from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)--ASTM F-1487-07, Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use; and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission--Public Playground Safety Handbook (CPSC Publication #325). When selecting playground equipment, make sure it meets these standards. One way to verify this when shopping different manufacturers and vendors is to ask if the equipment is IPEMA-certified. International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) is an organization that ensures quality and safety for all playground equipment. It provides a Third-Party Certification Service whereby a designated independent laboratory validates a participant's certification of conformance to ASTM F-1487, Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use, except section 7.1.1, 10 and 12.6.1. Should you ask for the certification in writing? Most definitely, and keep it on file!

2. Legal ownership

Once the project is completed, the parks and recreation department is the owner. Because of this, you (the entity) have to be responsible for procurement, installation and continued maintenance and repair of the playground. This may mean that the private community group has to turn over any funds for the project to you, and the department now has total responsibility for the project. Some will not like this and will inevitably voice opposition. That is OK, but they need to remember that each party has certain responsibilities, and this part of the project belongs to the parks and recreation department. How these funds are earmarked is up to the department, the fiscal officer and perhaps any state auditor’s guidelines. It has been my experience that many people in the general public simply don’t realize the “hoops” government agencies have to jump through in comparison to the private sector, so this may be a learning curve for a private community group.

3. Site selection

This is a key element because several factors come into play. Traffic patterns--both vehicular and pedestrian--around the playground have to be considered and evaluated. Is there sufficient room for the equipment and the required use zones? How is the drainage on the proposed site? Are there any trees nearby? If so, remember that a minimum of 84 inches (7 feet) of clearance above the equipment and/or use area (i.e., swing path of a swing set) must be maintained. How close is the site to athletic fields? Can foul balls from a baseball or softball field reach the playground? What about a golf driving range in the area? Many playground vendors will more than likely help with this process and even provide scaled drawings and site plans as part of their proposals. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

4. Installation

This critical element can make or break the project. In one of my first Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) courses, the class visited a public playground for a hands-on exercise. We found a two-year-old piece of equipment that was originally IPEMA-certified, but because of the installation, it had several hazards present. There are several options to help prevent mistakes and problems during installation. The first option is to pay the playground vendor to install the equipment. This is by far the best and easiest route to take, but it comes at a price. If that price is too high, there is usually a second option of doing what is known as a “community-install” or “self-install.” (By the way, this is a great time to call on that private community group to help with the grunt work!) If the “community-install” option is selected, it is imperative to stipulate in the contract or purchase agreement that the vendor provide an installation supervisor, on-site, to manage the installation. Many reputable vendors will do this simply because it is their name and reputation on the line, and they don’t want any negative publicity. Once the equipment is installed, regardless of the installation option, have the vendor perform a safety audit of the equipment to ensure it meets the current standards as it has been installed. Lastly, before signing over the final payment, require a letter from the vendor that states the equipment as purchased and installed meets all current playground safety standards (ASTM F1487 & CPSC #325). Save this letter because it may help one day in a legal matter!

5. Inspections

These are necessary to ensure the equipment is safe and operational on an ongoing basis. Depending on your location in the U.S., the weather, volume of users/patrons, etc., inspections should be anywhere from weekly to monthly. The vendor should be able to provide inspection forms, a basic orientation of the equipment and areas to review in the inspections. CPSI training and education are strongly recommended for anyone dealing regularly with playground equipment.

6. Documentation

Certain documents need to be retained, including the product name and description, the date and amount of purchase, the date of installation, the name of the contractor who installed the equipment and a list of all inspections and repairs.

Otherwise, you are wasting your time because if any of this information is challenged in court and is not in writing, the standard court opinion is that “if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.” As a public entity, there are probably public records requirements that need to be maintained. If you are unsure, find out what the requirements are and be sure to comply. Furthermore, check the statute of limitations for civil litigation in your state, and be sure to keep inspection and repair documents for these periods of time.

7. Volunteers

Public entities can always use some help inspecting and maintaining a playground, especially now that budgets are so tight. There is a good chance that if you approach the private community group about helping out regularly, it may very well come through. Another option is to obtain the group’s commitment for ongoing financial support towards surfacing materials and general maintenance costs. This is best pursued at the outset of a project. There is also likely someone in the community who has a passion for recreation, and is willing to step up to the challenge … just ask! When someone does step up, train that person as you would a new employee. Remember--the only difference between an employee and a volunteer is that one gets paid for the time and the other does not. You still have an obligation to provide training in the duties and tasks that person is expected to perform.

Avoid falling into the trap of having to say, “I wish someone would have told me that.” Ask questions, arm yourself with information, and make well-informed decisions throughout the process.

Greg Hennecke , CPSI, CSRM, is a Risk Management Representative for Hylant Administrative Services. He can be reached via e-mail at