Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

Drowning-detection systems

Over the past few years, a number of drowning-detection systems have come on the market. They range from simple underwater cameras to sophisticated computer systems that use underwater and above-ground cameras, complicated logarithms and motion detection to sound an alarm when someone appears to be in trouble. Not surprisingly, such systems cost a lot of money. Their manufacturers are quick to point out that these systems should complement lifeguards, not replace them.

They are becoming more common, though. Griffiths uses one such system, one of the more high-tech drowning-detection devices, in some of his pools at Penn State. Dworkin says the first such system was used in St. Cloud, Minn., at a high school where a kid drowned during gym class. The school district promptly installed three $75,000 systems in different pools, but Dworkin says the its enthusiasm was a little misguided.

"That's all well and good, but the reason why this kid wasn't found was because of cloudy water, not because they didn't have the assistance," he says. "The protection system doesn't work in cloudy water."

He also sees a potential problem with drowning victims who float, when these detection systems look underwater instead. Theoretically a lifeguard would see a floater, but it all reinforces the point that drowning-detection systems are complementary tools, not lifeguard replacements.

In general, the more layers of protection a facility has, the better. For example, consider outdoor pools, like those at a hotel/motel or apartment complex. They need to have isolation fencing around all sides of the pool. They need self-closing, self-latching and self-locking gates, which can only be opened using a key or swipe card. Gates need to open outward, away from the pool, because children have a tendency to push on gates rather than pull on them. Those kinds of protections can dramatically reduce the odds of an accident. Even if they cost money to implement, they're still cheaper than a settlement or litigation—and, of course, any human toll.

The end of deep-water pools?

In an attempt to limit drowning potential, some facilities have opted for shallow-water pools. Some of these places have removed diving boards to prevent spinal injuries, so what's the point of keeping a pool deep?

"You don't need more than 6 feet of depth," Ebro says. "But if you have a shallower pool, a couple of things happen. One is it's much less expensive to operate from a mechanical standpoint—it's less water. The water column is less, so you can see. It's brighter on the bottom. In 12- or 16-foot pools, it's much harder, even in glareless conditions, to see someone on the bottom of a deep pool."

Some facilities have gone even more shallow, with 4-foot depths that allow children to stand up when they get in trouble. However, shallow pools like these actually can increase a different type of risk: spinal injuries from diving.