Feature Article - January 2017
Find a printable version here

Heads Above Water

Lessons, Programs & Technology Help Prevent Drownings

By Deborah L. Vence

Effective Products, Technology

Experts agree that one of the most effective products to protect swimmers is the life jacket.

"We have yet to find a single incident of a child drowning in a USCG-approved life jacket," Griffiths said. "Negative opinions concerning life jackets do not stand up to the data we have collected and are mostly based on personal opinions that are biased and antiquated."

"For kids and any inexperienced swimmer, wearing life jackets [is important]," Ramos said. "It's the No. 1 way to add that extra layer of protection, [and help them] stay afloat longer."

Life jackets not only should be U.S. Coast Guard approved, but should be of varying sizes and degrees.

"It's important [for them] to be designed to keep the child up and adult up based on weight and position," Ramos said.

On top of life jackets, drowning prevention technology has been added to the aquatic environment as an additional layer of protection.

"The goal of advanced drowning prevention technology is to 'have the lifeguard's back' and assist them in creating a safer aquatic facility," said Cynthia Stubbins, sales and marketing director for a Cypress, Texas-based company that specializes in drowning detection technology.

Drowning detection products available on the market today vary in terms of their technology and how they detect a possible drowning. "Starting with products that will let you know that someone is drowning if a person is wearing their device, to products that use above- or below-water cameras and hardware and software, to the latest more advanced technology that incorporates hardware and software along with artificial intelligence that monitors the entire pool area and can detect if a person is drowning," Stubbins said.

What's more, it is important to note that the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) now suggests the use of technology as an additional layer of protection. The MAHC is a resource that was first released in August 2014 to give U.S. agencies that regulate aquatic facilities a way to standardize and improve existing pool codes. The code is clear to state that these water-monitoring technologies should not be considered as a replacement for lifeguarding staff, but as an additional layer of protection.

"As advancements have been made in technology and become more readily available, these advancements have been incorporated into drowning prevention and detection products," Stubbins said. "Fairly recent advancements in technology, such as tracking devices, ultra-high-definition cameras and artificial intelligence, are bringing drowning prevention products into the 21st century.

"In addition," she said, "as the price of these technologies decreases over time, these drowning prevention products are becoming more readily available and widespread in both commercial and residential environments."

Relatively broad selections of products and technology are available today in the area of drowning prevention products. Some are more directed toward residential applications, while others target commercial pools.

"Wearable technology, such as armbands, headbands and devices worn around the throat area can be used and monitored by sensing devices located around the pool. An alarm is sounded when a specific activity is sensed by the technology," explained Jerry Johnson, business unit manager for a company that specializes in drowning detection technology with U.S./Canadian headquarters in Norcross, Ga.

He noted that some technologies include the motionless detection systems, which are underwater cameras connected to a central unit with embedded motionless detection software.

"A motionless detection system is comparing images in order to trigger an alarm as soon as something new, motionless appears into a picture," Johnson said. "These types of systems are unable to differentiate between a real drowning case (someone lying motionless at the pool floor), a shadow projection or a strong light spot reflection into the pool or someone motionless head above the water surface into the shallow end."

Basically, these technologies that are applied to drowning detection will trigger substantial false alarms, he said.

"Most of the time these system alerts are delivered with 30 seconds (or more) detection delay in order to try to minimize the false-alarm rate. This is a very long period when time is of the essence in a drowning incident," he explained.

With classical video systems (CCTV), one or more additional staff needs to permanently stay behind a monitor (at the pool or somewhere else if the system is connected to a network).

"The staff will look at the pictures in order to check for a potential critical situation. Human-based, these systems do not bring any technological added value," Johnson said. "It has long been established that no one can be efficient looking at multiple images on one or more monitor(s) in order to detect within the requested time one or more critical event(s)."