The first step in parade safety

It was just the sort of road test someone like Jody Gerstner lives for: one that revealed a flaw.

The Natural Balance Pet Foods parade float — a testament to heft and creative design — featured a swimming pool for dogs and rolled slowly down an Irwindale street early one morning, just a few weeks ago. Suddenly, without warning, it stalled. Its weight had caused a plate attached to one of its wheels to sink into pavement. The float was going nowhere.

Fortunately, this wasn’t Jan. 1 or Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard. The Natural Balance float was quickly fixed. Saturday, with its kinks smoothed, the float is expected to be a prime attraction at the Rose Parade.

“Caught the problem just in time … that’s ahead of time,” Gerstner recalled. He was at the Irwindale test as part of a small behind-the-scenes group of volunteers — the Tournament of Roses Float Mechanics — who work to ensure that the parade’s floats operate as flawlessly as possible.


Never heard of the Tournament of Roses Float Mechanics? You’re not alone.

“They’re unsung,” said Michael Riffey, president of the tournament in 2004 and something of a parade historian. “Some even in the tournament aren’t that aware of these guys. Yet what they do is invaluable. I think they are the greatest asset the parade has in terms of keeping the whole thing going smoothly.”

Connected by an abiding love for the parade, the mechanics come from a mishmash of backgrounds and day jobs. Several are professional car and truck repairmen. There’s a grocery plant machinery operator, a community college teacher. Gerstner is an engineer who oversees attractions at Disney theme parks. The chief mechanic is Christopher Link, 58, a senior engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has led the group for the past quarter of a century.

Every year, in the tense hours before festivities begin, they swarm the parade’s formation area; fix-it men in orange overalls, on hand to solve last-minute dilemmas like stalled engines, wobbly tires or a panicked float crew.

When the parade is over, they take a month off. Then they set about preparing for the next go-round. From early summer until December they travel each Saturday to the myriad warehouses, labs and garages where dozens of floats are being built in the L.A. area.

They morph into inspectors, armed with thick copies of the Rose Parade Float Manual, a building code stuffed with regulations covering everything from brakes, axles and drive trains to how hot a float driver’s canopy can be (no more than 120 degrees, to avoid driver heat stroke). Guided by the manual, which seems to get thicker by the year, they conduct road tests, demand changes and firmly bend the ears of float builders who balk at needed fixes.

“It can be a cat-and-mouse game with the builders … because we sometimes have to say no to what they want,” Link said. “Ask the builders about our work — you are going to get a million different answers. Some love us. Some not so much. I like that kind of turmoil. They know that when we arrive, we have our game faces on because this is serious stuff.”

Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats, is one such builder. “Look,” he says, “we might sometimes be building something ‘too close to the pulse,’ as they say — something really pushing the envelope. And they are a backup set of eyes, the guys who come in and remind us ‘Hey, that might cause trouble, try this instead.’ Now some might not like it, but they are here for our best interest in the end.”

In the larger scheme, the trouble with the Natural Balance float was a good kind of trouble. It was easily fixable, and nobody at the parade would have been hurt if it had lurched to an unexpected stop and couldn’t move.

Of greater concern are the manifold dangers that arise when ungainly vehicles and massive crowds are thrown together. Floats are invariably freshly built prototypes with little proven history. Most are gas-powered, with engines that run hot and release carbon monoxide. They come festooned with combustible material. They feature elaborate moving parts that are often raised high in the air. Many are piloted by drivers buried well inside the bowels of the elaborate machinery, their view obscured.

“These things are essentially slicing through a long canyon of thousands of people,” Link said. Yes, he said, the goal is to make sure that there are few stalls and engine breakdowns and that the floats make it to the start and finish lines on time. But the bottom line “is to ensure safety … that there aren’t real problems.”

Examples? Luckily, real problems, potentially harmful ones, have rarely come to the parade. But they did in 1983, when the International House of Pancakes float briefly caught fire (it was doused before anyone got hurt) and a trapeze on a circus-themed float got tangled in a street light. Then there was the early 1990s float, fronted by mules, that suddenly couldn’t brake and went careening toward the crowd.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, Link said, the floats have become ever safer and more reliable. The heroic last-ditch save — a mechanic climbing under a float to work on a broken hose minutes before the parade begins — is rare. Moments of peril, like the float fire, have been relegated to history, though each year brings fresh challenges.

Added Riffey, the former tournament president: “You can think of that float with the mules as the old days.... That float went down a hill, off to a side, passed two bands, skirted along the crowd for 40 or 50 yards and ended up coming two to three feet from the audience....

“Now that situation is exactly the kind of thing we’re out to avoid. And the mechanics — the way they’ve brought in professionalism and rigor over the years with their testing and the rules they’ve developed — they go unnoticed, but they’re right in the thick of why things have changed.”