Have you ever wondered whether your aerial adventure course must upgrade its safety systems or components when industry standards change? For example, if your course is 10 years old, are you required to upgrade the course to comply with the newest standards? If so, how often and how large of a change must you make? How flexible are regulators when it comes to upgrades?
There are few simple answers to these questions, but understanding how the main standards consider and define safety systems is a good place to start.
The following definitions for safety systems from the ANSI/ACCT Standards provide some context.
Life safety system: A configuration of components including lifelines, belay beams, and anchorages that support fall restraint and arrest systems, personal safety systems, belay systems, and/or rope rigging systems.
Personal safety system: A system of equipment that connects a person to an anchorage or lifeline with the intention of limiting fall distance and impact force to a predetermined maximum. Used in situations where the individual is likely to regain footing and positioning. Operational requirements for personal safety systems vary across jurisdictions.
LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS
In this article we will focus on life safety systems and the industry standards related to modifications of them. To many of you, this topic will seem “structural” in nature instead of product or equipment related, which typically applies for personal safety systems. We hope to provide you with a foundation of understanding when exploring the differences between applicable standards.
Standards, codes, user manuals, and jurisdictional requirements are constantly changing. It’s difficult to keep track of all the changes for those of us who watch for them constantly, and even harder for those who own, facilitate, manage, train, and otherwise supervise aerial adventure courses or components.
When the changes come, and nothing has changed on our courses (both operation and structure), there can come a gap between what the “rules” say and what is happening at your operation. So the questions arise:
Is my course out of code compliance?
Does my operation no longer meet the standard?
What requirements can force me to change?
Are there ways to keep doing what we are doing?
While most of us would like to have the latest and greatest equipment and structures, and we’d like to follow the best practices available, there can be significant expense to doing so. If you have had relatively good success in what you are doing and the cost is high to change, when does practicality take a back seat to a changed standard?
WHAT THE STANDARDS REQUIRE
We looked at common standards that affect our work (mostly in the United States) to see what they tell us we “must” do. What follows is a high-level analysis of how revisions to certain standards and laws may affect your course. We reviewed the following:
ASTM F24 Standards (F2959-19 Standard Practice for Aerial Adventure Courses and other referenced/related ASTM standards)
Association for Challenge Course Technology’s (ACCT) Standard (ANSI/ACCT 03-2019)
International Code Council’s Existing Building Code (IEBC 2018)
Americans with Disabilities Act
Existing courses may be required to follow one or more of these standards, depending on the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) at their location, as well as others beyond those listed here. Further, the Professional Ropes Course Association’s ANSI/PRCA 1.0-.3-2014 Standard has not been through a revision, so how future revisions may impact operators following it is unknown.
F2959 Standard Practice for Aerial Adventure Courses is a relatively new standard (2012) in the well-known ASTM F24 family of standards. Committee F24 is designated for Amusement Rides and Devices, and aerial adventure courses have been placed in this family. The 2019 (F2959-19) version is more of an evolution of the standard than a simple revision to longstanding text. This new document references many of the F24 core standards, which are much more well established than F2959.
ASTM tends to publish revisions to the standard on a relatively frequent basis compared to other standards, and as such understands that even minor changes might have big effects on the status of existing operations. Therefore, service-proven operations are often exempted from the latest revisions.
Service-proven exemptions. For example, the F2959 Standard references the F2291 Standard Practice for Design of Amusement Rides and Devices for design components. F2291-20 section 1 refers to the course potentially being “Previously Compliant” (i.e., the course’s design team can show that it met a previous version of F2291). After the course has been in operation and unchanged for five years from the date of opening, the course is designated as “Service Proven” so long as it doesn’t have any “significant design related failures or significant design related safety issues that have not been mitigated.” Service proven courses would need no other changes.
However, modifications to the course would need to meet current standards. Just how much a modification changes the service-proven operation is a judgment call, and such determinations are beyond the scope of our current discussion.
The Association for Challenge Course Technology Standard is an older aerial adventure (referred to as challenge course) standard that, until recently, was more in maintenance mode than establishment mode.
ln 2016, though, ACCT became an ANSI Standard. ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, requires that the standard passes a process of public review and comment, and establishes requirements of fairness and consideration to the entire generally-affected community.
The 2016 standard was updated in 2019 with some initial fixes and a reorganization of the “Operations” chapter. The ANSI/ACCT Standard should return to maintenance mode, and ACCT is exploring a five-year cycle to keep the standard relevant while also assessing its effectiveness over a relevant period of time.
ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 tilts toward
requiring upgrades to structures. The standard refers to an existing course as “pre-existing.” Chapter 1 Standard A.4.2.1 provides a “grandfathering” grace period of 24 months for course materials and techniques that do not comply with the strength and performance requirements of the newest edition of the standard.
Chapter 1 also addresses requirements for modifications to pre-existing courses (i.e., modifications must meet the current edition of the standards) and professional inspections, which are required annually or at whatever more-frequent interval a manufacturer may deem appropriate.
Latitude for inspectors. The professional inspection process allows for latitude in the inspector’s opinion regarding existing conditions. Professional inspectors may require verification from other professionals to show that the course meets current standards when there is a lack of documentation that already shows such.
For example, an inspector may require a qualified professional to complete an entire structural analysis if there is not documentation to show that such an analysis has been done. This means that an otherwise long-standing course may need to meet current strength of material standards even though it may have met those standards at the time of the original build, but no proof of that can be provided.
In addition, an inspector has latitude in passing or failing the operation of a course and potentially requiring changes, with or without specific language within the standard. This appears to be a situation that can change independently of when, or if, the standard requirements change.
At present, such decisions seem to depend on changes in our industry’s legal liability and insurability environment. That is, an inspection company may have “passed” an element/operation for years, but now may be hesitant to do so or even fail something, simply because passing such an element may add liability that the inspector or the inspection company felt was not there in a previous legal environment.
The 2018 International Existing Building Code (IEBC) is definitely NOT written for the aerial adventure industry, but it can hold significant weight with an authority having jurisdiction. That’s because virtually every jurisdiction in the U.S. has adopted it, in some form, as have many jurisdictions outside the U.S. This code covers existing buildings and is updated every three years, though it changes little from code cycle to code cycle.
The IEBC basically “grandfathers” everything that is not considered “dangerous.” Much like the ASTM standards, it basically accepts that structures that met code at the time of construction are essentially service proven (although that language is not used). The definition of “dangerous” in this code relates to a site’s structures, not its operations.
Often, the best way to deal with jurisdictional issues and code updates related to your course and structures (assuming they have been there for a while) is to hire a local architect or structural engineer with knowledge of the code.
We mention the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it is becoming more of an issue in both existing and new construction. This is not a standard, but the law in the U.S. It was created in 1990 and updated in 2010.
It’s notable that the 2010 law allowed compliance with the 1990 law for most facilities, but not amusement rides. Essentially, existing structures are required to meet all 2010 ADA requirements that are “readily achievable.” That means “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense” (42 U.S.C. Section 12181(9)).
The law does not define “easily,” “difficulty,” or “much expense,” but does list factors a court should consider. That includes things like how much a facility makes, its resources, number of employees, and how it affects operations. There appear to be a lot of gray areas, but experience shows that facilities that make an effort toward reasonable accommodations help their case in defining these factors. If you upgrade some components to make them ADA compatible and list other possible upgrades as “too expensive” or “too hard to accomplish,” there is some leeway for having already defined some items as feasible and performing that work.
KEEP A WEATHER EYE
As 2020 has reminded us, we live in an ever-changing world. It can be a challenge to keep up with it all, including rules and regulations. And remember, there are other decrees that apply to more than the structure and operation of your course—employee laws, taxes, and insurance, for example. All may have severe consequences if you don’t keep up.
We hire professionals to keep up with a lot of these changes (accountants, HR professionals, etc.). We should do the same for our structures and operations.
Generally speaking, an existing facility can continue to operate much as it always has. The extent to which you may have to change is hopefully minimal. If you can show professional inspectors and AHJs that you are actively involved in the understanding of the dynamic world around you, that is evidence of your efforts toward maintaining compliance (even through grandfathering) of your facilities.
While we cannot promise that inspectors or regulators will be as flexible as you hope, experience shows that working with your AHJ from a place of mutual understanding is more effective than arguing a point or perspective. If you must make a change, keep an open mind, stay positive, get creative, and when in doubt, get outside help.