Feature Article - January 2017
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Heads Above Water

Lessons, Programs & Technology Help Prevent Drownings

By Deborah L. Vence


Johnson's company's computer vision surveillance system recognizes texture, volume and movement within a pool.

"Comprised of an advanced overhead and/or underwater camera network that continually surveys the pool and a specialized software system that analyzes (in real time) the trajectories of swimmers," he explained, "the system can alert lifeguards in the first seconds of a potential drowning incident to the exact location of the swimmer in danger.

"Most of the advancements made in these type products are in the camera and computer technology being used," Johnson said.

While his company's system is covered by multiple U.S. patents from a design and software perspective, the processing capability of computers continues to increase exponentially, which allows the overall system to operate at a higher level.

Not only that, camera technology has expanded in the past few years, too, "…to a level where color and infrared cameras transmit extremely high quality images for analyzation by the software," Johnson noted. "The development of localization software allows the system to send pinpoint information to the lifeguards about an incident in the pool where they can go directly to the potential victim rather than have to search for them."

"Finally, there is Web-based software available to allow pool monitoring from remote locations or a smartphone," he said.

Stubbins noted, too, that limitations of the human eye and human brain make it virtually impossible for a lifeguard to monitor 100 percent of the pool 100 percent of the time.

"Obviously lifeguard equipment and training advancements are a positive change to make the lifeguards more effective. But, it is clearly not enough," she said. "The fact remains that drownings still happen at lifeguarded facilities, costing both lives and millions of dollars.

"It is imperative that we recognize that lifeguards need technology as an additional tool to their job," she said.

Lifeguarding Programs

A number of recognized lifeguarding programs exist in the United States, examples of which include the American Red Cross Lifeguarding, Starfish Aquatics Institute (SAI)—Star Guard, YMCA Lifeguarding, Ellis & Associates—(more waterpark-oriented), United States Lifesaving Association (USLA)—(more open-water-oriented) and Boy Scouts of America Lifeguarding.

"Generally speaking, lifeguarding is continuously progressing as a trade. New skills, cognitive knowledge and behavior training are being introduced each time a lifeguard training program is released/re-released," said Katchmarchi, who has been a lifeguard instructor/trainer for many years.

The challenge, he said, for any field (not just lifeguarding) is basing training and practice standards and guidelines on evidence-based research.

"While limited research on lifeguarding exists and more needs to be completed, some studies have shown promise. In my opinion, one of the weakest areas in lifeguard training is on surveillance and how we teach a lifeguard to watch the water," he said. "In recent editions, lifeguard training programs have incorporated more robust and comprehensive training on how to watch the water, recognize a potentially dangerous situation and better recognize a victim in need of rescue."

One way to check in on how lifeguards are performing involves audits, which take place when a lifeguard is on duty and takes part in a simulated rescue.

"While the victim and the auditor know it is just a drill, the lifeguard does not know if it is a real rescue or just a simulation. Research by Schwebel, Lindsay and Simpson (2012) has shown that lifeguard interventions (such as audits) can be effective in increasing lifeguard vigilance," Katchmarchi said.

"While there are a number of areas within lifeguard training that are in need of additional evidence-based research, lifeguard training programs have made significant advances in recent years and are continually being revised to increase the vigilance, response and care of lifeguards," he added.

Griffiths believes that all of the lifeguarding programs do a good job, but said it's difficult to teach lifeguards to detect drowning victims that they have never had the opportunity of seeing.

"Actual drowning videos caught on security cameras illustrate a much more diverse drowning display than what we originally thought," he said.

Sometimes lifeguards endure challenges on the job, one of which includes parents assuming that they can turn over control once a lifeguard is on duty.

"You have to convince [parents] to be part of the safety team," Ramos said.

You also need to fit your lifeguard staff to the context of your facility. "Environments can be tricky." Traditional pools, such as rectangular-shaped pools, are much easier to scan. So, "we are getting more creative with waterparks, [with] more staffing," Ramos said. "You think about a traditional lap pool, you can have one or two guards. And then you take a waterpark, and add two or three guards."