In April of 2010, Tom Gill saw two things – a dust devil and a news report about a flying brinca brinca — that would change the trajectory of his research for the next decade and beyond.

A professor of environmental science at the University of Texas at El Paso, Gill saw a series of enormous dust devils while running weekend errands.

“One of them was literally stopping traffic on Mesa Street,” said Gill, who studies sand and dust storms in the El Paso region. “I thought, ‘That’s really bizarre, there must be some sort of unusual atmospheric condition that is causing this.’”

At home later that day, he saw a news report about three children in the Lower Valley who were injured when a gust of wind tossed the bounce house, or brinca brinca, they were playing in across the street.

“That first case made me wonder, ‘Gosh, what must the forces be? What must the physical phenomenon be that causes an actual jumping balloon to go airborne?’” said Gill.

Thomas Gill

He contacted his colleague, John Knox of the University of Georgia, and together they jumped into a 12-year journey to understand the dangers of bounce houses.

“We really wanted to take it on when we realized that it was not just a one-off thing, it was happening regularly, all over the world.”

They received mixed feedback from colleagues as they began to present their findings at conferences.

“The reaction really is varied, from people giggling at it as if it was something kind of funny, to the point where people realize that ‘Oh, this is actually an under-appreciated hazard,’ to other researchers saying that, ‘Oh, this is not even science. Why are you looking at this? This is kind of a frivolous topic,’” said Gill.

They persisted anyway, eventually creating a website to house their database of incidents, information on policies and regulations within the United States and best practices for bounce house safety.

Their research was recently published with multiple co-authors in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Tracking data from around the globe during a period of 22 years (2000-21), Gill and his colleagues found that at least 479 people were injured and 28 died in 130 bounce house accidents due to weather events since 2000.

As tragic as those events are, Gill said, “those numbers pale in comparison to the thousands and thousands of cases where (mostly kids) get injured in these bounce houses by falling out of them, crashing into each other, breaking bones (and) unfortunately having concussions when they bump into each other.”

Gill knows of four wind-related bounce house accidents in the El Paso area. Many of the accidents he studied occurred in weather conditions that did not appear unsafe, but sudden gusts of wind can appear even on mostly calm days and with either clear skies or thunderstorms that appear distant, the research shows.

And even though the American Society for Testing and Materials standards set a maximum wind gust speed of 25 miles per hour for safe bounce house play, over a third of the accidents analyzed in the study occurred with observed wind speeds between 0 and 20 miles per hour. Fewer than half occurred at wind speeds over 25 miles per hour.

Texas law requires an attendant for bounce houses at public events. The attendant helps moderate safe play and keeps an eye on weather conditions. (Courtesy of UTEP)

“That was one of the things that surprised us, that a lot of these incidents happened in winds that were not extremely strong,” said Gill. “These things are inflated. They’re buoyant. You know, they’re a jumping balloon. It does not take a wind that might be strong enough to knock a person over (to) knock a bounce house over.”

Worldwide, spring is a “peak time” for bounce house incidents, but Gill attributes this trend to social and psychological factors in addition to weather and climate. Spring typically means an overall increase in the use of bounce houses, safely and otherwise, as “people are more itching to get outside and have outdoor recreation,” Gill said.

Particular features of El Paso’s environment can pose additional risks.

“Especially here in the desert, an enclosed bounce house can get much hotter than the weather outdoors,” said Gill, adding that he has heard stories of children showing signs of heat exhaustion while playing in bounce houses.

El Paso’s soil conditions can also make it difficult to secure a bounce house, which should be tied down to stakes on all sides. Sandy soil does not hold stakes well and layers of caliche close to the soil’s surface can make it impossible to drive a stake deep enough to hold against even a moderate breeze.

Gill recommends always adding sandbags or some other weight to help hold down stakes. In addition, Texas law requires dedicated attendants for bounce houses at public events to mitigate rough play within the structure and to evacuate and deflate it if the weather takes a turn.

Despite their risks, Gill appreciates the entertainment value of bounce houses.

“We think bounce houses are great,” said Gill. “They’re great fun, they’re great recreation for kids and even now for adults, but they need to be used safely.”

He last jumped in a brinca brinca himself a few years ago on Centennial Plaza at UTEP — after making sure it was properly secured, of course.

Gill said that he would still “absolutely” consider renting a bounce house for an event.

“But I’d make sure that it was properly tied down and I’d keep an eye on the weather, especially the wind.”

Disclosure: Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in UTEP’s communication department.

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...