By Cassidy Walsh, Health Educator/ Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Sauk County Health Department & Shayna Dye, RS, Environmental Health Sanitarian, Sauk County Health Department
Situated in beautiful Sauk County, Wisconsin is the scenic, popular travel destination, and waterpark capital of the world, Wisconsin Dells. Home to the nation’s largest recreational waterpark, the area attracts nearly 4 million tourists visitors every year, bringing in close to $100 million in combined annual revenue for the state and county. With such an enormous influx of visitors, public health risks such as waterborne disease outbreaks, weather instabilities, and water related injuries are an ongoing priority for local emergency professionals. In fact, Sauk County’s unique water safety challenges require continuous collaboration and communication among public health officials, the local tourism sector and its entire business community.
To date, Wisconsin Dells has never undergone a major waterborne disease outbreak. This record is no accident, rather the result of constant monitoring for diseases commonly spread by way of recreational water such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia. In Sauk County, emergency preparedness always starts with prevention, and is often made possible through community partnership. For example, reducing the threat of waterborne illness can be attributed to the joint efforts of environmental health staff performing routine and thorough inspections, and the waterpark’s commitment to hiring highly educated and certified pool operators.
In addition to an emphasis on prevention, Sauk County Health Department employs evidence-based tactics, proven to reduce and/or eliminate health threats. For example, recreational water inspections are conducted using chemical testing, which is identified as one of the first lines of defense in preventing recreational water illnesses. To ensure the use of chemicals does not pose additional health risks, designated waterpark staff supervisors performs daily tests informed by the state’s designated guidelines, Wisconsin State Legislature chapter ATCP 76. Furthermore, both agencies maintain an open line of communication, including regular information and resource sharing, constantly working together to create a safe and successful tourist attraction environment.
Sauk County also strives to reduce recreational water injuries and drowning by diligently adhering to state safety regulations. In Wisconsin, this includes a mandated structural inspection of all waterslides, which must be conducted every five years by a Wisconsin Certified Engineer. In addition, agencies tasked with oversight of local waterparks (e.g. health department) are required to perform an annual review of the structural report and ensure the completion of any necessary safety precautions.
Staffing is another important component that helps prevent injury, illness, or death at waterparks in Wisconsin Dells. Lifeguards are required to instruct patrons on riding positions, monitor patrons in the water, and be observant to potential hazardous conditions. According to Samantha Fiscus, the Recreational Waters and Lodging Technical Specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin Dells has had 2 drowning deaths and 3 near drowning occurrences since 2013.
Weather-related risks can also pose serious public health and safety concerns for Wisconsin Dells, especially during the summer months when visitors primarily use the park’s outdoor facilities. Even during the colder months, Wisconsin weather is so unpredictable, locals jokingly coined the phrase, “living in Wisconsin means you can experience all four seasons potentially in one day and that’s normal”. While this saying may be funny, it is also very accurate, and another reason open communication across local agencies and stakeholders is a crucial element of responding to weather emergencies in Sauk County. County and local emergency agencies have worked diligently to network, educate, and create committees engaging local business owners on emergency protocols, especially in regards to dangerous weather conditions. Sauk County emergency management utilizes the Nixle System, a public safety mobile device and email communication tool, to quickly communicate vital information to the public. Local business owners in Wisconsin Dells are fully aware of Nixle and actively encourage tourists to use it in case of an emergency.
Waterborne diseases, safety, and dangerous weather are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to emergency preparedness in a small local community with a large tourist influx. Successful responses to emergencies in Wisconsin Dells are largely accomplished because of the consistent inspections, good rapport, and transparent lines of communication between emergency professionals and the local business community. With that in mind, all emergency professionals, whether they serve a tourist hotspot like Sauk County or not, can advance their preparedness, response, and recovery efforts by establishing meaningful and ongoing community partnerships.