Students determine rescuers' needs, invent HydroSpine to safely conduct boat rescues

In swiftwater 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.


Students gathered around a table work with HydroSpine design sketches. (Left to right) Kyle Schumaker, Liz Varnerin, and Brian Sandifer work with HydroSpine design sketches.

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 in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, 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. 


HydroSpine final design The final design of the HydroSpine incorporates many improvements recommended by swiftwater rescue personnel.

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, she visited George Lewis, a swiftwater 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.


Early HydroSpine protype testing in progress Firefighters in George Lewis's class for swiftwater rescue boat operators tested the HydroSpine prototype. Here, Christopher Eddy is in the device with Kendrick Terry pulling him in the water.

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, 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.


Boat rescue simulation for HydroSpine testing. Kris Boggs pulls a volunteer out of the water while David Jugenheimer drives the boat. All three men are firefighters in George Lewis's swiftwater rescue boat operator's class.

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 swiftwater rescue in general and about the techniques of removing a victim from swiftwater,” said Schumaker, who participated in the three-day Swiftwater 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. 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.

  • For more information on this topic, e-mail Jackie Reed or call (540) 443-9217.

A case for computing on the move


Lewis Carlyle demonstrates the deployed computer case backpack. The computer case is a uniquely functional design that allows great versatility in computer usage.

Daniel Hilgenberg, a graduate of the industrial design program in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, has invented a wearable computer case that will please people who need to stay on top of work even as they move around.

The case for a laptop computer can be worn like a backpack or suspended on the chest, where it can swing down to create a work platform that allows for computer use while standing.

“This would be an incredibly useful tool for people working in the field, such as in construction, surveying, and scientific data collection,” said Jackie Reed, who is with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. (VTIP).

More undergraduate research

Ample opportunity and support for undergraduate research offered at the university provides students with the means to set themselves apart as experienced competitive scholars.

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    Sophia Bous began researching comparative aspects of two species of New Zealand spiders and has since worked to determine developmental rate differences between two orb-weavers.
    Learn more about Bous's research.
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    Jesse Hurdus and Shawn Kimmel turned their volunteer work on the autonomous vehicle team into a research project with a national car manufacturer to build a full-scale computer-controlled vehicle.
    Learn more about their work.
  • Accent preference in infants
    Krisztina Varga's work in the Infant Perception Lab has given her an opportunity to generate an idea for a new study and participate in an international research process.
    Learn more about Varga and the study.

Read about other undergraduate research being conducted at Virginia Tech.

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