Rethinking zip line safety after the death of a child

ZIPLINE1NE070115CELAs co-owner with her husband of a busy canopy tour in the Stokes County treetops, Barbara Bollman believes zip lines are safe when properly built and operated. But as a mother of 11 children and grandmother to 19, her first thought on hearing about the zip line accident that killed a 12-year-old girl at a North Carolina summer camp last month was, “That’s it. We’re shutting down.”

The Bollmans didn’t close Carolina Ziplines Canopy Tour, which has never had a serious accident, and customers, including families and kids from area summer camps, continue to pour in Tuesdays through Sundays, slip into harnesses, helmets and safety gloves and get a taste of flight.

Other camps also have continued to use their zip lines or to send their campers to commercial zip line operations just as they have every summer for years.

But Bonnie Sanders Burney’s death on June 11 – the second known zip line death in North Carolina since the devices began to proliferate in the late 1990s and early 2000s – has prompted state legislators to see whether something should be done to ensure the safety of those who ascend to sometimes towering heights for the thrill of a few seconds’ ride down.

A bill is now working its way through the General Assembly that would order the state Department of Labor to study whether North Carolina needs to regulate the zip line industry, which is exempt from state oversight.

“I thought, with the death of this young lady, something needed to be done,” said Rep. Ted Davis Jr., the New Hanover County Republican who added the provision to a bill already in the works. Davis happens to be a cousin of Sanders Burney, who lived in Wilmington, but says he would have suggested the state look into regulating zip lines after her death regardless.

“I realize there is human error,” Davis said, “and I realize there are accidents. But I just felt like I had to go the extra mile to make sure that these zip lines are uniformly required to get inspections and insurance, all those kinds of things. I mean, if I sit here and do nothing, and another child dies, I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Davis added the provision to House Bill 39, which increases the penalties for willfully operating amusement rides illegally. That bill was proposed after a 2013 accident on a ride called “The Vortex” at the N.C. State Fair. Five people were hurt when the ride started to move as people were getting off. Investigators later found the ride had been tampered with and critical safety devices compromised.

The N.C. Department of Labor’s Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau is in charge of inspecting amusement devices at fairs, carnivals and permanent parks in the state to make sure they’re designed, built, maintained and operated in a way to prevent injuries. State law specifically exempts from those rules some other attractions, including zip lines.

News accounts indicate at least 12 people have been killed in the United State while zip lining since 2006, though the number could be higher; few states regulate zip lines or keep track of zip lining deaths or injuries, and no federal agency does so. No one even knows how many zip lines are operating across the country.

Another unknown is how many backyard zip lines have been rigged up using parts bought at hardware stores or kits purchased online. At least three of the deaths reported in news stories since 2006 happened on backyard zip lines.

One of the first known zip lining deaths in the country occurred in North Carolina in 2006, when a 17-year-old boy died from a fall on a zip line at a church camp in Granville County.

More than two dozen commercial zip lines now operate across the state, and dozens, possibly hundreds, more have been installed at youth camps. No record is kept of how many camps exist in the state, either, or how many have zip lines.

Those in the industry say the fact that thousands of children and adults sail across the landscape on zip lines each year without serious injury shows that most are built well and operated safely through self-regulation. A youth camp that wants accreditation from the American Camp Association, or ACA, must show that nearly every aspect of its operations, from the cleanliness of its kitchen to the fire safety of its cabins, meets industry standards. That includes on-site activities such as zip lines.

According to the ACA, there are 77 accredited camps in North Carolina. Not all camps in the state are accredited.

Zip line standards were first developed in 1993 by the Association for Challenge Course Technology, one of several groups in the U.S. that now have zip line standards accredited by the American National Standards Institute.

To get insurance, zip line operators – whether summer camps or commercial businesses – usually must show that their zip lines were built and are operated according to accredited standards, and that those who work as guides have been trained by credentialed instructors. Operators say their insurers usually require an on-site inspection of all zip line components once a year, and many choose to have their facilities inspected twice a year.

Camp Cheerio, where Sanders Burney died, is an ACA-accredited camp on 135 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has hosted tens of thousands of children since 1960. Camp Cheerio’s zip lines, one over land and one over water, had been inspected in March by Inner Quest, the company that installed the lines and trained the staff to use them, according to David Ozmore, president and CEO of the YMCA of High Point, which runs the camp.

Inner Quest and the camp’s insurer, The Redwoods Group, are investigating the accident, in which the rope holding Sanders (the name she preferred) to the zip line broke, and she fell 20 feet to the ground. Alleghany County Sheriff Bryan Maines said last week that his investigators found no reason to suspect anything criminal contributed to the accident, so his department is no longer involved in the investigation.

Camp Cheerio suspended the use of its zip lines after the accident.

Safety No. 1 concern

Zip lines are steel cables, attached to towers or trees, that passengers glide across using pulleys and harnesses. On some, riders slow or stop themselves with a gloved hand on the zip line. Others have a brake on the rider’s pulley. Typically, one camp staffer attaches riders to the line and releases them from one platform, and another catches them as they arrive on the next.

Originally used by researchers studying treetop life in tropical rain forests, zip lines also have been used for military training and are popular among outdoor adventurers and as part of team- and confidence-building exercises.

“There’s also just something fun about flying through the trees,” said Adam Boyd, director of camps Merri-Mac and Timberlake in Black Mountain, and board president of the N.C. Youth Camp Association, a nonprofit trade group.

His camps offer kayaking, backpacking, swimming, rock climbing, diving, fencing, riflery, gymnastics, soccer, a ropes course, water skiing and horseback riding, but they don’t have a zip line – yet. Boyd hopes to have one built in time for next year’s busy summer season.

“It puts children in the canopy. They are in the trees, moving through the tops of the trees, as if they belong there. They can see everything from a very different perspective that way. It’s remarkable the life you see. There is so much happening.

“And you don’t just feel the wind, you hear it differently, the way it blows through the leaves,” Boyd said. “It’s remarkable.”

John Moss, program director at Camp Highlander in Horse Shoe, also in the mountains, said his camp replaced the zip line it had had for years when it opened this season.

“This one is bigger and a little bit longer, and actually it’s a dual zip line that allows two campers to go 10 feet apart on two separate lines. It’s very exciting,” Moss said.

The new system uses the latest technology, Moss said: pulleys that don’t come unhooked; two points of attachment at all times when the camper is off the ground; and full-body harnesses. Guides on the zip line course get 36 hours of training from certified instructors, Moss said.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern,” he said, echoing other operators. “Our No. 1 goal is to make sure that campers go home safely to their parents. There is never 100 percent certainty that accidents won’t happen, but every camp takes every precaution they can.”

Not just for fun

Zip lining is a favorite activity among the girls at the three camps run by the Carolina Peaks to Piedmont Council of the Girl Scouts. None of the camps have operated their own zip lines since 2007, but they take girls who want to go to commercial operations, including the Bollmans’ Carolina Ziplines, off N.C. 66 just west of Hanging Rock State Park.

The canopy tour, built nearly a decade ago, now includes 22 cables on two courses across 26 hilly, mostly forested acres. Each tour takes about two hours.

Nine campers from the Girl Scouts Keyauwee program, in Sophia, came with two of their camp counselors one afternoon last week. Each was outfitted with a harness, helmet and gloves, and given safety instructions before hiking out to their first zip line, a short hop over a gully designed to give them a taste of what was to come.

The group set out with Carolina Ziplines guides Lauren Chesnet, who hooked them and their pulley to the line and sent them on their way, and Ryan Mizelle, who zipped across the gully first and waited to catch each rider as she landed. At each stop, Chesnet and Ryan reiterated safety rules and gently corrected girls who weren’t practicing proper procedures.

Over the next two hours, the girls’ feet rarely touched the ground, as they flitted between wooden platforms mounted around trees and zigzagged through the forest, their pulleys buzzing like metallic bugs.

“The purpose of these activities? There are a million and one,” said Wendy Burns, director of outdoor programs and property for the Peaks to Piedmont council. “The reason we do it is that it is a very empowering activity for young women. It’s very individual. You’re not competing with other people; you’re challenging yourself.

“It can challenge your relationship with height, with spatial relationships, and it can be a great opportunity for leadership and teamwork. You can’t always learn all those things in the school system or in other places in life.”

Burns said the Girl Scouts vet outside facilities to make sure they have been properly inspected and their employees adequately trained.

“We expect to see their credentials,” Burns said. “If a vendor is credible, they are more than willing to provide that. If they wouldn’t, we would opt to go somewhere else.”

Standards needed

Ken Jacquot began building zip lines in the early 1990s and now does so professionally through his company Challenge Towers Aerial Adventures, based in Todd.

Early in his career, Jacquot said, he opposed regulation of the industry but now favors it, though he doesn’t believe zip lines and other challenge courses should be lumped together with carnival rides. Several years ago, Jacquot started a government liaison group for the Association for Challenge Course Technology and has worked with regulators in some of the states that have developed rules for zip lines.

At least nine states – Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – regulate commercial zip lines.

Jacquot said he likes Rep. Davis’ suggestion, which was approved by the state Senate last week and is expected to be approved by the House in the next couple of weeks. The legislation would have the labor department find out, among other things, how many zip lines are in operation in the state that allow access by the public; whether any counties or cities regulate them; the types of liability coverage they should have; the number and type of accidents that have occurred on zip lines in the state over the past five years; the cost of safety inspections; and how the state could go about regulating the industry.

In an interview, Davis said the state is not likely to begin conducting inspections itself but would make sure that facilities get regular inspections by industry experts.

Jacquot said that while he’s not sure state regulations would have prevented the accident that killed Sanders Burney, better oversight could provide better data about injuries and deaths so that the industry could identify and fix trouble spots.

The best zip line, he said, is one that is exhilarating and feels a little risky but is designed so that people don’t get hurt.

“Everybody should be held to a certain quality control,” said Jacquot. “And when something happens, we want to analyze and correct it. To me, the family that had this tragedy occur deserves that, and we owe it to them.

“This child deserves that.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?

Zip line operators and camp directors say zip lining is an exciting and confidence-building activity that is safer than scholastic football if done properly.

If you or a child in your care wants to go zip lining, industry experts suggest doing due diligence to ensure the course is as safe as possible by:

▪ Making sure the zip line has been designed, built, installed and maintained by professionals accredited by the Association of Challenge Course Technology, the Professional Ropes Course Association or other group that uses standards accredited by ANSI, the American National Standards Institute.

▪ Making sure the zip line and its components, including equipment riders will use, have been inspected within the past 12 months by an accredited inspector.

▪ Making sure zip line staff have been trained by accredited instructors.

▪ Making sure riders have two points of attachment any time they’re off the ground.