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City Spends Extra $44K for Fan Safety at Ballpark

Officials discovered mid-installation that Florida Auto Exchange Stadium needed a safer, more expensive style of railing to better prevent fans from falling from the top row.

New railing installed at in January may have been up to code, but it wasn’t safe enough to stay — at least, not for city fire officials.

City officials agreed to fork over an extra $44,000 just weeks after railing was installed as part of the original $53,000 project, so it could be replaced with a safer, more expensive style in time for the first spring training game Saturday.

"These are protecting folks, pretty much, from heights," City Manager Rob DiSpirito said. "There are some pretty good drops."

The first 151 feet of railing had been installed around the top level of the grandstand, separating the top row of fans from a three-story drop to the ground. The latest railing has vertical bars about 4 inches apart. It is considered safer than the previously installed railing, which had six horizontal "rungs" that children could potentially climb like a ladder, DiSpirito said. 

The city originally ordered the horizontal-style railing and was in the middle of installation when it was discovered that state fire code specified a strong preference for the other type of railing.

“There's no question there was a mistake, and we regret that,” Tom Burke, city engineer, told Dunedin commissioners at their Feb. 16 meeting.

At least 22 deaths are attributed to falls at Major League Baseball stadiums since 1969, according to an August 2011 ESPN report. Last year, two deadly falls — one in July at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, TX, the other in May at Coors Field in Denver — prompted officials at some MLB stadiums to rethink the weight given to fans' view when setting safety standards for railing height, according to ESPN.

The Dunedin ballpark hasn't had any major incidents since it was built in 1977*, but DiSpirito told commissioners that he wanted to “avoid any opportunity for that kind of mishap to happen here.”

The new, vertical-style railing is the same height as the older, horizontal railing — roughly 54 inches, or 4 and a half feet.

“They do present a remarkable difference in appearance,” Burke said. “They are a safer form of handrail, and they are appropriate for what we’re doing.”

As part of its 15-year license agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays, the city is obligated to contribute to a $12 million stadium renovation project, and it budgets for repairs annually. This year’s railing installation is the second phase in a three-part railing replacement project, originally budgeted at $129,000. Toronto has five years left in its license agreement.

City finance officials said they took the $44,000 from leftover funds for other stadium projects, and they hope to use the $15,500 of leftover horizontal railing materials to help minimize the cost of next year’s phase.

"Whatever the internal process that we need to figure out to avoid these kind of issues with mistakes in ordering and specifications and communication, I just hope we get that all addressed," Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski told DiSpirito.

DiSpirito ensured Bujalski that he is “paying very serious attention to that,” and he is having "doublechecks built into the process.”

[Updated 12:40 p.m., Thursday, March 1, 2012]

*Editor's Note: The Dunedin Blue Jays website says the stadium was built in 1990. Official county records indicate it was built in 1977. 

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