“Safety is first.”
That is the mantra at Carolina Ziplines Canopy Tours, according to co-owner Barbara Bollman.
Bollman said she supports moves by the state to explore whether more regulation of the zip line industry is needed, but she said she doubts any state regulation will impact how her business operates.
“We are already very self-regulated,” she explained. “You can’t get insurance if you don’t have certain things in place.”
She said her business focuses on safety from making sure anyone on a zip line, including guides, is wearing all required safety equipment, to hiring an aborist to inspect the safety of trees along the course.
“We are redundant, which means we have two points of contact with the harness so that if anything were to ever fail with the pulley you still have contact that keeps you hanging,” she said. “Some of the camp courses don’t have that redundancy.
“The lines are tensile tested to tens of thousands of pounds and we have a a certified inspection twice a year although it is only required once a year,” she added. “We have added an arborist for all of the trees. That is not standard in the industry but it is something I think would make sense to require for any canopy tours. You need to make sure the trees are sound, so we have him come out twice a year and also after any ice storms or strong winds.
“On top of that, any time we do a tour, all of the lines are checked before the first tour goes out,” she said, adding that she has also installed signs along the tour to remind customers of good safety practices.
The move to provide more state regulation over the zip line industry came after a 12-year-old girl died at a summer camp in June while riding on a zip line.
Last week Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill that orders the state Department of Labor to study whether North Carolina needs to regulate the zip line industry.
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.
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.
Bollman said she hopes any state regulations will include lines at summer camps.
“At the camps, this is not the only thing they do,” she said. “There can be a difference when these zip lines are our core business and a camp has multiple activities and the zipline is coming off of a ropes course.”
She said she also hopes the state will set up an advisory board for the industry, both to get input from people involved with zip lines on a daily basis and to help disseminate safety advice.
“Let’s do it and let’s all be on board over what is safe,” she said.
Bollman’s business, originally opened by Robert Nickell, was the first canopy tour to open in the state back in 2007. Since its opening, the facility has never had an incident which required an insurance claim.
“We have over 22 cables, which is several miles worth of course,” said Bollman. “In a two hour tour customers typically travel on 11 to 13 cables. We replace them every couple of years, so none of the cables from 2007 are still up there, but a lot of the course is still the same.”
She said the business draws thousands of customers to the area every year.
“We are open year round,” she said. “We are busiest in March through November, but some people enjoy it the winter when the canopy is down and you can see all of Stokes County.”
Visitors in cooler months are also treated to bonfires and hot apple cider.
“We are very community oriented,” said Bollman. “We really want to see families using it. We want to see them going up and enjoying themselves and being outside together.”
She said the tour frequently gets large groups from summer camps, church groups, scouting activities and even team building from businesses.
“I have a staff with degrees in outdoor education for team building and a low ropes course that businesses use,” she said, noting that she employs 20 guides to lead visitors through the tour. “We are not the highest or the longest in the state, we are just a great canopy course up among the trees.”
That course draws visitors largely from a two-hour drive’s radios including Charlotte, the Triangle and Roanoke, as well as a variety of people who are just passing through the area.
“We get people from Ohio and Indiana who are just passing through,” said Bollman, last week. “I just had a walk-in group from California.”
She said she can can accommodate groups of up to 80 people on the course at one time, and happily sends visitors to other area attractions.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes. Martha Quillin of The News and Observer contributed to this story.