For many course operators, the time to upgrade your safety systems is coming. Perhaps you have heard your braking system referred to as “old school” among industry colleagues. Perhaps you’ve had your gear for almost 10 years and the manufacturer says it’s time to replace it. Maybe you’ve had a near miss or an incident that has led you to re-evaluate your safety systems. Or maybe you are just looking to improve operational efficiency. Whatever the reason, making the necessary changes can feel like an uphill battle, but this is a mountain worth climbing.
IS IT TIME TO UPGRADE?
There are a few things that might lead—or push—you down the road to updating your systems. Among them:
Industry trends. It can feel like things evolve quickly in our industry. These days there are many continuous and smart belay systems, auto-belay and free-fall devices, self-retracting lanyards, controlled descent devices, and automatic brake options, just to name a few. Not to mention all the different types of harnesses, helmets, lanyards, and other gear. When you look around and see nearby courses with these newer systems, or when your staff and participants ask why you haven’t adopted them, it can prompt you to look into the possibilities.
Standards and compliance. Updates to the ANSI/ACCT and other standards can affect our gear choices and course design. For example, the Operations Standards in chapter 2 of the latest edition (ANSI/ACCT 03-2019) set forth appropriate supervision strategies for self-guided aerial adventure/ trekking parks based on the personal safety system in use. In order to stay compliant with the ACCT standards, a course could be compelled to update its systems.
Another example: An operation using sit harnesses for staff at height needs to upgrade to full-body harnesses to stay aligned with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guidance.
Incidents. Sometimes an accident or near miss can lead you to take a critical look at how your course operates, and can highlight where there may be elevated risks associated with the current systems you have in place. Having all these great new options for safety systems means that you can look for something that meets the specific circumstances, goals, and challenges at your operation.
Manufacturer advisories. Occasionally, the folks who make our gear will publish notices to clarify or update how the equipment should be used, and this might mean that it is no longer appropriate to use your gear or a course component in the way that you have been using it. Perhaps the gear manufacturer stated that it doesn’t approve its harnesses and helmets for use on challenge courses, or said that its belay device wasn’t intended for work positioning, or that the lifespan of a piece of gear is shorter than you thought. This can leave you scrambling to replace or repurpose the gear in question and find something new.
Efficiency and ease of use. As technology evolves, sometimes the best reason to upgrade is just to make the work easier, to make the participant experience more fun, or to improve the throughput (the number of participants you can get on your course in a specific period of time) of your operations. If a new safety system is easier to operate, it’s easier and faster to train staff effectively. If the experience is better for the participant, or more enticing for potential participants, you might get more of them to come to your course. And if the throughput is increased, you can increase your profitability and/or your ability to offer your experiences to more people.
There is a lot to think about when deciding to make improvements. Some considerations are obvious, and some are not so obvious.
Price. One of the first questions is often, “How much is it going to cost?” There is no easy answer for this; it depends on so many factors. Are you looking at gear or course improvements, or both? How many sets of gear do you have? How big is your course? Suffice it to say, no matter what the size or scope of your operation, upgrading is not going to be inexpensive. But how much is the experience and/or safety of your participants worth?
Time. There are a few things to consider here, depending on the type of upgrades you are contemplating. If you are making upgrades to your course, keep in mind that the process could take a considerable amount of time to complete, and it is likely that you will not be able to use your course during that time. For example, a canopy tour brake system upgrade could take from a few weeks to as much as a few months for construction alone.
There’s also the time it takes to evaluate the course for compatibility with the new system; the design, planning, and contracting process; the time it takes to order and deliver materials; the scheduling and travel of the build crew; their time on site; and potentially, an acceptance inspection after all the work is complete.
A tip from the pros: Start very early. “Have the conversation with your PVM [Professional Vendor Member] while you have plenty of time left in your operating season, so that they can evaluate your current systems in action,” says Alex Cox of Aerial Adventure Tech. “You’ll also want to have enough time to finalize the plan before you close your course for the off-season [or during a slow period where closure is less of a burden]so that you can be ready to start the project during that time.”
If you are upgrading your gear, starting early is critical to success here as well. This past year has been plagued with supply shortages and shipping delays. It can take months to get items that once took weeks to get. So, if you have a course that opens in the spring or early summer, for example, it would be beneficial to start looking at your options during the winter. Events like the ACCT conference provide an opportunity to get your hands on a variety of gear so that you can make ordering decisions shortly thereafter.
Training. Any time you add a new component to your operation, you have to train your staff to use it. New harnesses? You’ll have to train them on proper use and fit. New controlled descent device? They’ll have to be taught how to operate it and facilitate with it.
Making the necessary changes can feel like an uphill battle, but this is a mountain worth climbing.
Plus, with any new component, there will likely be a new inspection process to learn, including criteria specific to that device or piece of gear. Not to mention, your operations documentation will need to be updated to reflect all these new procedures.
Training and documentation takes time and resources, so be sure to budget and schedule for this part of the process.
Ripple effects. There are many different parts and pieces that make up your overall safety system—the harnesses and lanyards, trolleys and tethers, belay and brake systems, etc. But none of these individual pieces operate in a vacuum. Changes to one part of the system can affect multiple other pieces, and that must be considered as you begin the process of upgrading.
For example, according to Cox, upgrading from a sit harness to a full body harness could require a different tether length, because the attachment point is in a different place. Or, changing a braking system could dictate changing the trolley so that it’s compatible.
There can be more far-reaching ripple effects, too. I know this first-hand. At my zip line canopy tour, we are in the process of transitioning from a hand-braking course to an automatic braking system. First, this means that we need to change our trolleys. Since the current ones are not optimal for repeated high speed contact with the brake system, we will upgrade to a trolley with impact bumpers.
Second, we no longer want the guests to ride up close to the cable. They do not need to be able to reach it to hand brake anymore, and perhaps more importantly, they should really be a little lower so their face is not near the capture system when they contact the brake. So, we need a longer trolley tether.
But that longer tether means our guests are riding lower below the cable, and they are more at risk of kicking the platform as they come in. So, we also need to add sloped ramps at the landing zones.
If we want to take it all one step further, we could change our harnesses, too. Our current harnesses have a ventral and sternal attachment point (we chose those to encourage the rider to be more upright, which is no longer optimal). With our new system, we could choose a different harness with only one attachment point that is a little lower.
So, by changing one part of the braking system, we will be forced to change at least three or four other components as well.
HOW TO GO ABOUT UPGRADING
As that example shows, there may be a lot involved with an upgrade. You will likely spend a considerable amount of time and money on any upgrade, so make sure you are making the right choices for your course.
Get help. Call on an expert (or three) who has experience with course construction and upgrades as well as the gear and systems that go along with them. That could include the folks that built your course, a PVM, an inspector or operation reviewer, and/or the manufacturer or supplier of your gear.
Talk to other operators. Reaching out to other course operators can be very helpful in understanding common challenges, learning what has worked and what hasn’t worked for them, and sharing ideas for solutions. It can be especially helpful if they have similar systems or are using similar gear.
Go see it in action. In addition to talking with other operators, Cox recommends actually visiting other courses to see the product in action before you spend money on something you don’t like, or that won’t work for your operation.
Whether you’re getting pushed toward the upgrade by circumstance or requirement, or you’re getting excited about some really cool new piece of gear you can’t wait to put on your course, hopefully you have now gained more understanding of the process. Go ahead take that first step, ask for help along the way, and enjoy the journey up the mountain. The view is great from the top.