Feature Article - January 2021
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Safer in the Water

Tools & Best Practices for Drowning Prevention

By Joe Bush


According to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), between 3,500 and 4,000 people die from drowning annually, an average of 10 per day. And, the NDPA says that another 9,000 people a year require emergency room care from drowning.

No doubt there are other dangers in a natatorium, waterpark or resort—slips and falls on decks and in locker rooms require their own rules and policies, and water and air quality issues can sicken swimmers, staff and spectators. Handling chlorine and other pool chemicals also comes with dangers. And this year COVID-19 has added the risk of contracting a virus that has killed more than 300,000 Americans.

But drowning is the best known, most lethal and most common aquatic facility hazard; it gets the headlines and draws the focus of organizations like the NDPA and the lifeguard industry.

The main weapons against drowning have always been the acquisition of swimming skills, the attention and skills of lifeguards, and medical care. The NDPA says that learning to swim can reduce the risk of drowning by 88% for 1- to 4-year-olds who take formal swim lessons.

"We need more of the world's population to learn to swim, understand water safety and have training for what to do in a water emergency," said Adam Katchmarchi, executive director for the NDPA and an assistant professor of Sport Management at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"Learning to swim is one of the key ways to prevent drowning and make people safer around water. We know there is still a significant portion of the population in the United States and across the world that do not have basic swimming skills or water competency."

It seems, then, that we know all there is to know about aquatic facility safety and how to maintain it: Keep people from running on wet surfaces, maintain proper water and air quality, teach people to swim, employ a well-trained lifeguard staff, and in 2020 and 2021, follow federal, state and local guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Katchmarchi describes the basic approach to facility safety, beginning with the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. "Every aquatic facility is different," he said. "Every event at an aquatic facility is different. Because of this, aquatic facility managers must have a comprehensive and well-practiced safety plan unique to their facility and operations."

According to Katchmarchi, aquatic facilities must:

» Focus on preventing accidents from happening.
» Have a well-trained staff who are familiar with the facility's safety plans and emergency response plans, and who regularly participate in in-service trainings.
» Additionally, facilities should have a robust safety program that involves daily inspections of the facility, proper water quality management, posted and enforced facility rules, a preventive maintenance plan and a risk management plan.

Technology & Innovation

Indeed, continuing best practices is the major part of maximizing safety in and around pools, but experts like Katchmarchi say there is still always research and innovation to bolster what has been done for decades. Residential pools already have aids like alarms to prevent unauthorized water entry, and distress monitoring systems attached to swimmers and lifeguards are available for swimmers at home or in public.

"I see the aquatic safety technology as a major future evolution," he said. "There are a number of technology companies entering the aquatic safety and drowning prevention space. While we are a way off from each aquatic facility having a major safety technology component, this is an exciting time to see the innovation happening in this space."

One of the newest additions to water safety technology is a mobile app developed for lifeguards through the joint effort of aquatic facility management consultant and design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, forensic consulting and litigation support service firm DJS Associates and the Aquatic Safety Research Group.

The latter was founded by Tom Griffiths, who has also served as the director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University for a quarter century.

Griffiths said the app, set for rollout in early 2021, is designed for recognition and detection of drowning victims in swimming pool settings. He got the idea for the app when he realized that while there was a wealth of good information provided by lifeguard training agencies for rescues and resuscitation, little actual training, if any, was provided to lifeguards as to how they could improve their detection and recognition of distress skills.

Griffiths' sports psychology background had made him familiar with the mental and visual training athletes have used for decades to improve performance.

"We thought this type of virtual training would be excellent for lifeguards who have a difficult time not only detecting drowning distress in the water, but differentiating distress from water play," said Griffiths.

The team spent several years working with computer gaming engineers and software technicians to come up with a visual Lifeguard Simulator that would challenge lifeguards to spot drowning victims on their phones in a timeline fashion.

Griffiths said some of the simulator's assets include:

» While most lifeguard training concentrates on rescue and resuscitation, the app's training concentrates exclusively on visual detection and recognition of victim distress in the water.
» The training app can be used anywhere, ensuring privacy of the user.
» The visual detection and recognition skills will support and supplement pool and classroom work.
» The app supports the growing trend in virtual learning.

"We truly believe (the app) will significantly assist lifeguards in anticipating, recognizing and detecting drowning behaviors before it is too late," said Griffiths.