Feature Article - January 2019
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On the Front Lines, Making a Difference

Grassroots Efforts & Technology Aim to Prevent Drowning

By Dave Ramont

Technological Innovation

New drowning detection technologies are also being introduced, and while developers are not suggesting that these innovations replace lifeguards, they can add another level of protection.

Katchmarchi is excited about the possibilities. "While not all of these technologies are new, we're seeing an increased push for technology to supplement and support drowning prevention and water safety efforts. The NDPA has embraced this new focus and strongly encourages future innovation."

He knows there's likely to be concern and apprehension, and for good reason, but feels that some of the new technology on the market is pretty amazing. "With that being said, I want to remind everyone that there isn't one single cure for drowning. We need multiple layers of protection in place to ensure a safer experience for everyone." Katchmarchi does believe that some new technologies can make water safer, and thinks it will be interesting to see if facilities fully embrace them. "I would encourage facility managers to have an open mind and do their own research."

One company that formed in Italy in 2005, beginning as a community-based effort to address the alarming number of drownings in public pools, offers an underwater monitoring and advanced warning system designed to enhance aquatic safety and lifeguard operations. Simply put, an underwater camera system and artificial intelligence (AI) software, capable of monitoring hundreds of swimmers in the water, detects potential submersion risks in a matter of seconds, notifying lifeguards through wireless smartwatch and handheld technology.

Robert Thurmond is the company's U.S. marketing and sales manager, based in California. "At the risk of being overly technical," he said, "the system scans every swimmer in a pool to analyze and determine if there is a potential risk for extended submersion underwater. Keep in mind that a submersion incident can become a drowning event in as few as 20 seconds."

Thurmond goes into the technical details of the system's workings, then sums it up this way: "[It] gives advanced warning, accurate positioning and real-time video of an active threat before an incident can become a drowning."

Thurmond said they've been focused on partnerships with progressive organizations and facilities that understand that aquatic safety and drowning prevention is being transformed by technology. "Our biggest challenge is that end-users need more information about drowning detection technology—not just our solution, but all technologies. We expect 'smart' products at home and at work, but in the U.S. our pools are remarkably underserved by safety technology."

Interest in the system is pretty evenly distributed between public and private installations, according to Thurmond. "I think part of the reason is because the range of aquatic activities and features being offered is getting more and more dynamic. Some municipal pools look and operate just like waterparks, but what they all share in common is the need for additional layers of safety without having to increase staff." He added that their two newest installations in the United States and Canada are both in public pools, servicing hundreds of users each day.

Founded in 2009, a Swedish company offers another pool safety and drowning detection system where swimmers are monitored through wristbands that detect possible drowning by monitoring the pattern of abnormal depth for too long a time. The wristbands send an alarm that is picked up by sensitive receivers in the pool and distributed to sirens, lights, pagers or radios, depending on configuration and operator's choice. So if a user stays too deep for too long, the drowning detection system will immediately alert lifeguards, allowing for immediate rescue in case of drowning.

Based in Connecticut, CEO Jamie Goetsch agrees that the adoption of pool safety technology in the United States has been slow, but believes that the tides are shifting. "The general awareness and advantages of adding a reliable layer of safety based on technology has been growing significantly. We see much more interest and traffic at trade shows and have opened discussions with many more potential clients."

Goetsch said that each client facility decides how they'll utilize the system based on their particular needs. "Of course, children aged 1 to 5 are at greatest risk statistically and are typically users of the wristband. However, many of our clients offer, or in some cases require, all pool users to wear the wristband. We are currently experiencing an increase in drowning events in the senior and baby boomer demographic, so that population is often keenly interested in using the wristband. One example is Europe's third largest waterpark, where the wristband is supplied to every guest at the entry point."

The wristbands can also be equipped with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, allowing for integration with other systems. The wristband can then be used for door access, locker and safety deposit box "keys" and cashless payments of concessions and other products. "When there is an existing RFID system, or plans to implement RFID in the future, we can smoothly integrate drowning detection as an additional component of the RFID investment," Goetsch said. "Many facilities, however, are primarily focused on providing the safest possible pool."