May is National Water Safety Month — a joint public awareness effort of the World Waterpark Association, the National Recreation and Park Association, the American Red Cross and the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. But as any aquatics professional will tell you, water safety vigilance is critical every second of every day of every month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates approximately 11 people die every day from drowning in the United States, and drowning is the leading cause of injury death for children between the ages of 1 and 4. Even non-fatal drownings — which occur when people survive after being underwater for an extended period — can cause brain damage and other serious long-term complications.
It’s all enough to keep facility operators awake at night, and it’s why Tom Griffiths has leveraged more than 40 years of aquatic safety consulting experience to develop an innovative new phone app that allows users to interact with simulated lifeguard scenarios. Dubbed “Dr. Tom’s Lifeguard Vision,” the app spent six years in development and is expected to be used by beta-testing facilities this year prior to its full launch. As of this writing, final technical details were being worked out, according to Griffiths, who is president of Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa., and a frequent AB Show presenter.
“There have been so many lifeguards who miss drowning victims,” Griffiths says. “I kept racking my brain: How can these kids practice detecting and recognizing life-like drowning victims?”
Detection and recognition
Griffiths believes he’s come up with an answer. In partnership with St. Louis-based aquatic design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker and forensics consulting firm DJS Associates in Abington, Pa. (along with app developer Cubix), he created an educational app based on the same principles behind simulation training for vehicle drivers, aircraft pilots and athletes.
Lifeguard Vision will allow aquatic facility operators and managers to encourage (or perhaps even require) lifeguards to hone their skills in both indoor and outdoor settings by monitoring different types of activities and encountering realistic conditions they might face in their daily lifeguard activities. Both active and passive drowning behaviors are simulated using life-like avatars in the water.
When users see an avatar in trouble, they blow a virtual whistle. The app responds by congratulating them and indicating how long it took to detect the victim. If the user misses a drowning, the app buzzes and indicates what was missed. Each simulation lasts about 15 minutes, according to Griffiths, and all avatars and their actions are randomized.
“We have 12 to 15 people in the pool — boys and girls, men and women, people of color — and they randomly show up for different activities, like playing in the shallow end, going off the diving board, swimming laps,” he says. “The drowning scenarios can take place anytime, anyplace. It could be an elderly lap swimmer who slips to the bottom on the turn. It could be a non-swimmer in the deep end holding onto a water noodle that slips away. We tried to re-create actual drowning scenarios we’ve seen on security camera video.”
Facility managers will pay a fee for their lifeguards to use the app, and they’ll be able to monitor successes, identify areas that might need improvement and gather data on overall performance.
It’s not a game, Griffiths stresses, but rather a simulator that allows lifeguards to practice their detection and recognition skills the night before going on duty, or even for five minutes in the breakroom prior to resuming a shift.
“They can train their eyes and their brain to focus on drowning victims, and I truly believe that this will help improve lifeguards’ detection and recognition,” he says. “We’re always telling lifeguards to get off their phones, and now for the first time we’re saying, ‘Get on your phone — but in the right setting and when you’re not actively guarding.’ ”
Lifeguard Vision certainly isn’t the only digital tool that facility operators can use to improve drowning detection and recognition. Such companies as Aqua Conscience, WAVE Systems and AngelEye also offer products in this category.
“Video cameras and computers are vigilant; human beings are not. That’s a fact,” Griffiths says. “So technology is going to be much more effective than the best lifeguards on duty. But everything goes hand in hand, because you still need a lifeguard on duty who must respond. And I think a lifeguard is going to be more alert when a computer is backing them up, because they don’t want to be beat by a computer. If you run a facility that has both the computerized drowning detection system and the app detection system, then you’ve got two great layers of protection in safeguarding your patrons who come to the pool.”
More lifeguards needed
Increasingly, the human component of lifeguarding has become elusive. Nationwide lifeguard shortages exacerbated by the pandemic are expected to continue. In the past, many lifeguards returned to the job year after year, but with outdoor facilities closed in 2020 — and for possibly all or part of 2021 — they found work elsewhere.
This spring, at least one-third of all public pools in the United States were at risk of reducing hours or closing entirely due to a lack of lifeguards, according to the American Lifeguard Association. In Omaha, Neb., for example, 10 of the city’s 15 outdoor swimming pools are expected to operate for only half of the summer’s nine-week season, with the other five pools remaining closed all summer. The situation is similarly dire in cities across the country.
“Regretfully, it’s probably going to be the worst summer,” ALA director Bernard Fisher told Newsweek. “We have 309,000 public pools in the U.S., but we don’t have the youth in the ratio to the population. … We won’t have the staff to do the rotation, or we won’t have the staff we’d like to see. Some of these kids haven’t been in the water in two years. Not only do we have a lifeguard shortage, but now we don’t have enough kids who know how to swim, who can’t become lifeguards in five to 10 years.”
No wonder managers at Indian Land (S.C.) YMCA and other facilities are inviting former lifeguards who are now older adults to take shifts in the lifeguard chair. The Y had at least three lifeguards who would be classified as senior citizens on its staff in April and was looking to hire more.
Smart move, according to Griffiths — and one that could help keep some pools open this summer. “I know that a grandparent is going to be more vigilant than a youngster on duty,” he says. “That grandparent has raised kids and now has grandkids, and so they know from first-hand experience how quickly a child can get into trouble. So I would encourage and urge facilities to look for senior citizens.”
While Griffiths adds that many people in their 50s and 60s can make rescues and deserve a lifeguarding job, he also believes that all lifeguards should be paid more. He notes that the Phoenix (Ariz.) Parks and Recreation Department offered a $2,500 incentive to would-be lifeguards who receive their certification and work the entire 2022 season. The hourly base pay for Phoenix lifeguards is $14.02, according to phoenix.gov.
Changing the perception of the job wouldn’t hurt, either. “Facility operators might want to look at lifeguarding as a resume-builder and include life skills and professional skills in their lifeguarding training,” Griffiths says. “Offer continuing education modules for head guards, and make the job a platform to help kids become more mature and more professional.”