Four students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech have created a swift-water victim-transport harness for boat transport.

In swift-water rescue, neck and back injuries are among the most difficult for rescuers. Victims must be immobilized to reduce the possibility of further injury, especially in cases where the water is rough. However, current back-immobilizing rescue harnesses present complications and hazards. For example, existing harnesses, which were designed for use on land, do not float and become heavier when wet.

Liz Varnerin of Mechanicsville, Va.; Kyle Schumaker of Greenville, S.C.; Brian Sandifer of Waynesboro, Pa.; and Matt Zacherle of Culpeper, Va., all seniors and industrial design majors, developed a rescue harness that provides proper spine immobilization, self-righting to face-up flotation, and protection from water hazards. The team named their product HydroSpine.

The invention began with a class assignment to develop a useful product. When the class discussed disaster solutions, the team began to look at products needed for flood rescue. This initial interest narrowed to water rescue, and finally to the needs of rescuers. “After researching water rescue, we narrowed our focus to getting people in and out of the rescue boat,” Varnerin said.

In September 2007, Varnerin visited George Lewis, a swift-water rescue instructor trainer and owner of Rescue3 Virginia in Front Royal. She learned about rescue operations, the number of rescuers and victims in a boat, and what materials they have to work with. The designer and the rescuer began to discuss a product specifically for back injuries. They brainstormed about a life jacket with a spine board and Varnerin took her notes back to Blacksburg.

The goal is to have a harness that has sufficient flotation, floats in the proper position in the water, and self-rights unconscious victims so they will be face up. This required research with materials and placement of flotation foam. For instance, the team determined that foam has to be placed on the chest after numerous rounds of testing.

They also reduced the number of steps needed to secure the victim, making it easier and quicker for rescuers to use.

The mock up – duct tape and all – was tested in the university’s pool and the design was improved. In November 2007, the entire team took the prototype to Lewis.

“We gave it to his class – which consisted of firefighters -- and before we could provide instruction, they were able to figure it out,” said Schumaker.

“They liked the handles next to the head. It helped a rescuer pull the board when swimming and helped the person in the boat pull the board out of the water,” Schumaker said.

Lewis and his class suggested the team redesign the headpiece so it can be used without a neck brace and relocate some of the straps so the rescuer can check the patient’s vital signs, such as blood pressure.

“The team learned much more about swift-water rescue in general and about the techniques of removing a victim from swift water,” said Schumaker, who participated in the three-day Swift-water Rescue Boat Operators Class and is now boat operator-certified.

The second prototype incorporates handles for pulling and lifting, and holes along the side of the device to allow rescuers access to patient vital signs. There are also fewer buckles. “We integrated four buckles into two handles, allowing simultaneous fastening,” said Sandifer. “This reduces the amount of time it takes to secure a victim.”

Another attribute of the HydroSpine is that it does not contain metal; a hospital can perform tests such as X-rays and MRIs without removing the patient from the harness.

The team will show their product at the National Association for Search and Rescue conference in Colorado Springs, Colo. in late May 2008. A patent is pending on the HydroSpine. To learn more, contact Jackie Reed of Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc., at, or (540) 443-9217.


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