Inside the New ACCT Standards

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In September, the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) published the ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 Challenge Courses and Canopy/Zip Line Tours Standards (revision of ANSI/ACCT 03-2016). The book is the result of three years of work and significant public comment. The new standard is available in print and in digital format online from ACCT at ACCTinfo.org.

The revision of the ANSI/ACCT Standards supports the new and creative program designs that have developed in the industry, and provides a solid foundation for existing operations. The changes in the standards may be significant for some operators, though. Here are some of the most notable ones.

Dealing with Changing Times

No surprise: this industry is growing fast. Challenge courses and related services were once the exclusive province of the military. Next, they were adopted by experiential education programs. Today, we see a wide variety of different offerings based on elements of challenge courses, including adventure parks and zip tours.

The ownership model has changed, too: some remain not-for-profit, some are almost exclusively for-profit, and some effectively blend those models.

The tension between the historic industry practices and new and emerging concepts is always part of the standards development process. Since ACCT was founded, we’ve seen that this tension exists primarily between educational/non-profit operations and commercial operations, and between proponents of older and newer safety systems.

But as the challenge course concept evolves, the need for solid standards evolves with it. That’s in no small part due to technological advances. But another driver is the newsworthiness of challenge course accidents. Though rare, serious incidents often result in calls for regulation.

All these considerations present a significant challenge for standards writers. Though the industry is evolving fast, the pace of the standards change process is deliberate and slow, in part to assure that the industry continues to have a stable and reasonable level of minimum expectation. After all, that is what a standard really is: the minimum expectation for designers, installers, inspectors and operators.

The deliberate pace of change assures that the foundation of the industry, which standards certainly represent, does not shift too suddenly. Whether for-profit or not-for-profit, it’s unrealistic to expect an operator with an older but still well-functioning system to tear it all down and start afresh each time a shiny new bauble is introduced to the market. A deliberate approach also assures that professionals are prepared for the shift when it does happen.

But as innovators provide new and interesting designs and operations, the need for new or adjusted language arises. For example, how does one write standards for aerial adventure parks with different lanyard systems, or to address the different approaches to staff/participant interaction?

As a result, the proposed changes were drafted by highly experienced members of the community and then circulated to the community for comment. A dialog ensued, changes and amendments were made, followed by more reviews until, ultimately, the standards were approved and published.

So, What’s New?

The ANSI/ACCT Standards has long been intended as a “meet the current practice” standard. With this round, that was viewed as both vague and potentially impractical, so the new ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 Standards states explicitly, “On pre-existing elements and courses, ‘grandfathering’ of materials and techniques is allowable only when such materials and techniques comply with the strength and performances requirements of the current edition….”

This is markedly different from standards that imply or state specifically that an attraction must meet the standards at the time it was designed or built. The foundation of our industry, ACCT Standards continue to raise the level of practice, producing incremental and relatively consistent progress of the standards. That helps owners, operators, builders, and regulators advance the safety and effectiveness of the aerial adventure industry.

The rapid growth of aerial adventure park operations and the increase in zip tours was a major area of focus in the new standards. There are only minor changes to definitions and to Chapter 1 (“Design, Performance and Inspection”). Chapter 3 (“Training”) only had changes to cited references.

Structurally, the significant changes to the standards book are in three areas:

1) removal of the appendices;

2) removal of the Practitioner Certification Standards; and

3) significant changes to the structure and requirements of Chapter 2, “Operations.”

Why the Changes?

Let’s examine these changes and the reasons for them.

1. The appendices are now available on the ACCT website (www.ACCTInfo.org) for members to access. Since at least the 6th edition, an effort has been made to make the standards themselves less of a “how to” document and more of a “do this at minimum” document.

2. The Practitioner Certification Standards (Chapter 4 in the ANSI/ACCT 03-2016 Standards) were also moved to the ACCT website and renamed “Practitioner Certification Structure and Requirements,” because this part of the standards is the structure of a certification program, not a set of standards that can be applied across the industry.

Additionally, unlike the remainder to the document, Chapter 4 has not undergone the rigorous ANSI process. These guidelines are important for certifying bodies, but do not rise to the level of standards.

The guidelines also include the appendices about the essential functions of a practitioner. Like the other removed sections, these are available on the ACCT website for members.

Diving into Chapter 2

3. The most significant change to the standards themselves is in Chapter 2, “Operations.” In Part C, “Staff Competencies” was changed significantly. It is now organized around three primary delivery approaches: facilitated, guided, and self-guided. In essence, the new standards now recognize that different programs function in different ways.

This change is important because it addresses the interaction of staff and participants, irrespective of the business model of the operation. For some time, industry professionals have been concerned about whether or not an operation is “commercial” and whether or not the “commercial” or “not-for-profit” status changes what should be required.

The reason for this change is straightforward. There are for-profit companies doing therapy and education, and not-for-profit organizations running massive adventure parks. From a safety and standards perspective, the business model is irrelevant. What matters is whether the systems work.

Also in Chapter 2, “Facilitation” has become “Interpersonal/Program Management” and crafted to better reflect the wide variety of ways industry staffers interact with participants. How staff interacts with participants in a therapeutic setting, as opposed to an adventure park setting, has always been a challenge to standards writers. The new definition addresses this challenge in a reasonable way.

Additional changes in this section: There is greater detail in “Facilitated Challenge Courses: Activities Using Life Safety Systems,” which should help programs better document and train staff for their job requirements. There is more detail in discussion of zip line operations, to make these requirements clearer. A new section titled “Self-Guided Courses: Aerial Adventure/Trekking Parks” specifically addresses the operation of these newer types of attractions.

Continuing Evolution

All of these changes adjust the foundation of our industry, and as the industry evolves, we’ll ultimately need to update them in the future. Regardless of business model, those operating challenge course elements should do so with an eye toward providing students and guests with a rewarding experience and minimum risk. That’s the intent of the newly-released standards, and will continue to be ACCT’s primary focus going forward.

Scott Andrews has been part of the challenge course and adventure education industry for more than 35 years. He has been a facilitator, Outward Bound instructor, course manager, builder, inspector, zip guide and chair of an ACCT Standards Writing committee. He currently works to assure the industry has good relations with regulators and efficient, effective regulation. He can be reached at the ACCT offices.

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