Human beings are fallible. This is the humble truth that has inspired recent technological advancement in the expanding field of aquatic safety, an industry that has long relied entirely upon that fickle surveyor, the human eye. New products in every imaginable form are making their debut on the market, all with the unifying goal of showing us what our eyes might have missed. From electronic surveillance and wearable alert systems to secret lifeguard audits and 3-D imaging, aquatic safety is in a period of flux.
The all-seeing eye
In 1999, Poséidon was spurred by the number of drownings occurring every year in swimming pools to create a system that would detect drownings before they occurred. By 2001, the first system in the United States was installed at a high school in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Years in development, the current system is a network of overhead and underwater cameras employed to keep a constant watch over pool activity. The cameras continually send images to industrial-grade, high-volume computers running the Poséidon software, which has been programmed to differentiate between the typical movement patterns of a swimmer versus someone who is in distress. Having identified suspicious activity, the system then sounds an alarm to facility staff.
Poséidon identifies suspicious activity based on an old lifeguarding guideline called the 10/20 Rule. The rule says that if a person in distress is identified within 10 seconds and can be removed from the water and resuscitated within 20 seconds, they have a good chance of avoiding long-term ill effects as a result of the incident. By using this tested guideline, Poséidon seeks to set an upper limit for lifeguard response time, theoretically eliminating the threat of long-term ill effects from a near-drowning incident.
According to Jerry Johnson, Poséidon's business unit manager for North America, the surveillance system is intended as a last resort, for situations that a lifeguard is liable to miss. "We like to use the phrase, 'Poséidon never blinks,' " he says. "It doesn't turn its head. It doesn't get distracted by other activities in the pool. If the lifeguard stayed out a little bit later than normal and isn't quite 100 percent, you don't have that issue with technology."
However, a lifeguard who does identify an emergency situation right away has a 10-second window to beat the system. "We have had situations captured on video where the counting had started, and then the lifeguard jumps in, moves the person, brings them up, and the alert never went off," says Johnson.
The all-hearing ear
Poséidon is not alone in its attempt to use emerging technologies to make a safer world for swimmers. Other drowning-prevention alert systems can take the form of armbands, headbands or neckbands to be worn by swimmers, and sound an alarm if they reach a certain depth, or stay there for too long. One such system is Sentag, which features an adjustable wristband sensor that patrons can use as an electronic locker key and to pay for concessions, as well as a drowning prevention device.
Sentag wristbands continuously monitor depth and time, while sensors installed around the pool are continually "listening." If the parameters, which can be customized by facility management, are exceeded, the sensors will pick up the signal and sound an alert.
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Like Poséidon, Sentag has designed the system with the 10/20 Rule in mind to coordinate with lifeguarding best practices. Also like Poséidon, if a lifeguard identifies a problem and effects a rescue within the parameters, the event will not trigger an alarm.
CEO of Sentag America Jamie Goetsch describes the system as the natural result of developing capabilities in the face of continued drowning deaths and aquatic injuries. "Drowning is a low-frequency, catastrophic-cost event like automobile crashes," she says. "Seat belts have significantly reduced traffic-related death and injury, and provided great societal benefit. We believe that technology can drive a very large positive impact on rates of drowning death and injury."
A glimpse of what's to come
A parallel response has been developed by aquatic safety and risk management consultants such as Jeff Ellis and Associates, based in Windermere, Fla. Through the development of an extensive aquatic risk management program, Ellis sets its focus on lifeguard training and auditing, with the purpose of bringing human performance up to the highest possible level.
Ellis developed its lifeguard program in 1983, around the time the aquatics industry began to see significant changes in facility design. Its training program seeks to overcome such obstacles to adequate supervision and aquatic safety as wave pools, moving currents, water slides and other features or attractions that can obstruct the lifeguard's view.
Ellis takes a step in the opposite direction from surveillance systems in the sense that, rather than creating a safety net for incidents that a lifeguard may miss, they have implemented a system of auditing that sets a higher bar for accountability. However, even in this endeavor, there is no escape from technology.
The company uses a simpler surveillance system to audit clients, secretly videotaping lifeguards and supervisors while they're on duty to make sure they are attentive and that they are addressing issues in a timely manner.
According to director Joe Stefanyak, the desire on the part of facility owners for a higher level of accountability is driven not only by the increased risk factors found in a modern aquatics environment, but also by the risk of being held responsible in the modern world.
"The growing presence of social media and the increased media attention that aquatic incidents have now, as opposed to 30 years ago, makes a big difference," Stefanyak says. "And that, in turn, impacts litigation." The high visibility gained by emergency situations, along with the financial impact of the lawsuits that often follow, have driven many facility owners to seek solutions for their surveillance challenges.
However, it is not just in the capacity of reacting to the changing environment that technology has made its debut in the industry — it can also be used to anticipate potential risks and sight obstructions in a facility through the use of 3-D imaging. Using virtual reality technology, facility designers are able to create 3-D images of facilities prior to construction, which enables consultants like Ellis to see a future facility through the eyes of a lifeguard on deck.
Says Stefanyak, "We can do things now like take a look at what the lifeguard's point of view is going to be when we build that play structure in the middle of the pool, so that, before we build that structure and realize it's going to take us 10 lifeguards, we might be able to make a little change to our design element and open up some of the sightlines."
In Stefanyak's view, advancements in surveillance technology are in a similar situation to many of the emergency-response medical devices that were introduced to aquatics facilities relatively recently. "I think a lot of folks don't want to be the first one to use it," he says. "I think they're a little bit timid at times to really jump both feet into the water, so to speak, when it comes to implementing some of the new technology."
A balance of power
Adam Katchmarchi, a professor in the field of water safety and aquatic facility risk management, as well as the president of the National Drowning Prevention Association, offers one possible explanation for such reticence. "When I first started learning about drowning-detection technologies, the first thing that popped into my mind as an aquatics facility manager was, 'Is this going to make my lifeguards take a back-seat role?' "
Katchmarchi is adamant that this should not be the case. In his opinion, surveillance technologies that have been adapted to suit the aquatics environment are beneficial to a facility in their capacity as a back-up set of eyes — a safety net for human fallibility. But, he stresses, while it's human to err, neither is technology 100 percent foolproof.
"Lifeguards need to be aware that when technology is infused into their environment, they're still to do their job as if nothing's different," he says.
The myriad technologies available to aquatics facility managers today have the effect of enhancing the safety professional's full range of senses — from a surveillance system that never blinks and sensors that can hear a cry for help that is never uttered, to 3-D imaging that quite literally transcends both time and space. Will these advancements eliminate the potential for high-cost errors in the aquatics environment? These technologies will have to earn their poolside spot.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Electronic surveillance: The all-seeing eye turns its gaze toward aquatics" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.