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Can Underwater Surveillance Help Prevent Drownings?

Courtney Cameron

The city of Edmonton has recently issued a Request for Proposal for the installation of underwater cameras in response to concern over their growing drowning rates. The cameras, also called an Underwater Drowning Prevention System, are a relatively new technology that aid in surveillance and recognition of emergency situations. 

According to Jerry Johnson, business unit manager of North America for Poseidon, a manufacturer of the cameras, the technology is focused on tracking movement. When the camera detects that a person has been motionless for more than ten seconds, it sounds an alarm on a device carried by lifeguards alerting them to the situation and giving them a visual of the location of the emergency. On a global scale, Johnson says the technology has resulted in approximately 30 additional lives saved during the past 15 years.

In a bibliographical study of lifeguard vigilance from the Applied Anthropology Lab at the Paris Descartes University, it was found that "the maintaining of lifeguard vigilance at a high and constant level throughout his surveillance period is particularly difficult due to the nature of the task : the low number of critical signals and high number of non-critical signals, the monotony, the unfavorable physical conditions (noise, temperature, etc.), and the organization of the activity over time which may not be ideal. In this context, automatic systems, such as Poseidon, to help detect drowning accidents provide essential assistance and are a determining factor in improving safety. For such systems, it is important to take into account and to optimize the functioning of the human/system team in order to maximize the overall performance."

Though the city has issued assurance that the cameras are intended only as an additional surveillance tool and not as a replacement for lifeguards, there are still some that worry they will act as a false safety net and encourage laziness in pool surveillance staff. Barbara Costache, chief administrative officer for the Lifesaving Society of Alberta, told Global News, “The key human factor of lifeguards is they are there to prevent, to engage, to educate and then to recognize and respond. What the technology does is – it doesn’t prevent and it doesn’t respond. It can only assist in recognition.” Others have voiced the opinion that city money would be better invested in more comprehensive training for the staff.

Other concerns over the effectiveness of the new technology center on the fact that few drownings—only 8% of those reported in 2014 and 2015 in Alberta—occur in a pool. More drowning deaths take place in rivers, lakes and bathtubs. Of those drownings which did occur in pools, only half were in public pools with a lifeguard on duty.

Rob Campbell, supervisor of aquatic strategies in Edmonton, still believes the cameras will be an asset. “You have a lot of glare on the surface of the pool coming from either sunlight or the lights above the pool, which have to be there, and what we find a lot of the times is the lifeguard can’t see that well below the surface,” he told Global News. The city has already done what it can to update signs and cut down on surface glare, and will forge ahead with their plans to have the cameras installed in the first pool by the start of the year in 2017.

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