No pun intended, but computer-aided drowning detection systems seem to be treading water at the moment. The costly technology remains out of reach for most facilities. But like all good things — HDTVs, iPads and hybrid vehicles — prices will come down and what was once cutting edge has the potential to become customary.
“I think in five years, we’ll see it become more common,” predicts Gareth Hedges, general counsel and director of consulting at The Redwoods Group, a Morrisville, N.C.-based insurance provider to more than half the nation’s YMCAs. “In 10 years, it’ll be the standard.”
Until then, the aquatics industry may also have to grapple with uneasy questions about privacy and how this technology may affect lifeguards’ jobs.
Here’s how it works: Cameras overhead and underwater can differentiate between normal and suspicious movement. Swimmers doing laps won’t trigger an alarm unless one of them begins to sink to the bottom. A camera will lock on the victim and sound an alarm within 10- to 12 seconds. A monitor poolside will give a read of the location.
The digital eyes can better detect danger under difficult conditions, such as glare and chop, but by no means can guards take it easy. Rather, the surveillance system is used as a “backup to the human element,” says Julie Colon Koriakin, director of strategic initiatives with the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta.
Koriakin's association was the very first U.S. adopter of a technology developed almost 20 years ago by Poseidon, a European manufacturer now owned by pool-equipment producer Maytronics. More than 230 pools worldwide have the early-warning system, according to the company.
While Koriakin can’t credit the system for any saves yet, Poseidon claims 28 successful rescues.
“There have been near-drowning incidences where the system has gone off,” Koriakin says, “but our staff did notice the emergency condition and were able to respond — not necessarily as a result of the system going off.”
When it comes to these devices, the cost presents perhaps the largest obstacle.
It’s ironic then that a nonprofit organization seems to be the only one that can afford a swimming pool monitoring system that can cost north of $100,000.
“Our philosophy is, if it saves one life it’s definitely worth the investment,” Koriakin says.
Of Poseidon's 50-plus U.S. installations, most are found at YMCAs. YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, which has 18 locations, represents more than half.
Why YMCAs? Industry observers posit that these nonprofit entities have donors willing to fund the equipment, whereas bottom-line-oriented businesses do not.
This option becomes more cost-prohibitive for organizations with multiple pools, which would have to equip each one with a system. “From a risk-management perspective, you can’t just install it in one pool and leave the others unprotected,” Hedges says.
The good news is you do not have to install them all at once. To make the initial cost more manageable, have a plan to install the systems over a period of time, starting with the pool or pools you determine to be the highest risk.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of being recorded in their bathing suits. The video technology has been criticized as being needlessly intrusive in the U.K., where at least 30 CCTV systems have been installed, according to reports.
Scotland is one of the latest to equip several community pools with cameras, igniting a flare up between local authorities and a leading civil liberties group.
Big Brother Watch intends to expose the “true scale of the surveillance state by challenging polices which threaten our privacy. …” Lately, the organization has been advocating for privacy on behalf of swimmers. It takes issue with the public's exclusion from the decision-making process.
“The stories that we have heard regarding the use of CCTV in swimming pools has largely indicated that it has been put there without there being a consultation period with the public,” says Big Brother Watch Director Emma Carr in an email to AI.
Maybe Americans are a little more nonchalant about being monitored — there’s been little, if any, controversy in the U.S. so far. As Poseidon's Geoffrey Menard sees it, gym goers are already checking their rights to privacy at the door.
“When you go to these facilities, when you sign up for a membership, it says you may be monitored throughout the building for security purposes,” says Menard, operations manager for the company’s North American location in Norcross, Ga.
Atlanta-area YMCAs do not broadcast the fact that swimmers are under surveillance. But they do not keep it a secret either. Questions naturally arise when the alarm sounds.
“When we have educated our members on the system and why we have it, they are very pleased to know that they have an extra set of digital eyes, so to speak, keeping them safe,” Koriakin says.
Besides, it’s not as though someone is watching a bank of screens in a back room somewhere. The CCTV is essentially live-streaming activity in the pool. Footage is only accessed from a server when an accident needs to be reviewed.
The state of wearables
Not all drowning-detection systems involve cameras. Some require pool guests to wear microcomputers on their heads or necks.
It’s considered a more affordable alternative to CCTVs. However, wearable tech is still in its experimental phase in aquatics facilities.
The Wilton Family YMCA in Wilton, Conn. allowed a developer of the wearable monitoring system to use its 25-meter indoor pool as a test site. Highly sensitive hydrophone receivers placed along the perimeter of the pool track sensors embedded into slim neon headbands. Alarms flash and ring in the event of a prolonged submersion.
The system was installed in 2013 and, since then, others were placed at Wilton Family YMCA's swimmable pond and at several other YMCA-owned lake water facilities. The technology especially shows potential in dark-water settings where it might be difficult to locate a submerged body with the naked eye.
But results have been mixed so far, especially at the pond, where heavy rains and the rattling of a nearby train trigger false alarms.
“We’re debating about whether or not we’re going to keep using it,” says Drew Schoenster, assistant aquatics director of the Wilton Family YMCA.
Perhaps realizing the inherit challenges of offering facilities a fail-proof monitoring system, some developers now are shifting their focus toward consumers. The concept is roughly the same, except parents get an alert on their smartphones when their tech-equipped kiddos are in over their heads.
While primarily marketed as an at-home solution, it’s likely that parents will bring the devices with them to the local Y or waterpark.
“It’s quite possible that, if a child goes under, the parent will know it before the lifeguard,” Hedges says.
That could be a good thing, mostly. Having both a trained professional on the job and a parent keeping tabs on their kids increases the chance of rescue. However, when parents have technology that lifeguards don’t, that could open some disconcerting ramifications.
Says Hedges: “There is potential for the parent to say, ‘OK, how come the lifeguard didn’t see this?’”
While personal protection devices hold potential, that isn’t to say facility systems are dead in the water. In time, developers will have worked out the kinks and lowered the costs. And they may even help facilities lower their insurance costs.
Insurance companies factor in a number of variables when determining premiums, including how safely a pool is being operated.
“This would be another one to say, ‘OK, do you have a drowning-detection system?’ If so, that would help you get a higher rating in your aquatic facility analysis and that would affect your price positively,” Hedges says.