In the not-so-distant future, lifeguards could have three eyes.
Body cameras are becoming smaller, more affordable and waterproof -- all of which begs the question: Could the technology one day wind up on the strap of a lifeguard’s bathing suit or headband?
There are reasons to consider the possibility.
The industry might be open to new surveillance tools that could exonerate rescuers accused of negligence.
The aquatics community has been on edge since last year’s shocking arrest of a Connecticut lifeguard. In September, Zachary Stein was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment stemming from what authorities described as a delayed rescue of a 5-year-old boy. That a lifeguard could face criminal charges for doing his job – even if it was done poorly – was unprecedented.
If this is the new reality in which lifeguards operate -- one that holds them liable for any perceived oversight -- then wearable cameras might have a use in aquatics.
“A body camera, positioned correctly, could show you exactly what that guard’s technique was,” said Gregory Anderson, a litigation attorney specializing in aquatics defense.
Wearable cams might also help ward off unwanted sexual advances from patrons and fellow guards. In 2015, an all-female team of lifeguards in China was fitted with body cameras to catch men who were reportedly faking emergencies so that they could grope their rescuers. Guards working solo shifts at community pools might also benefit from the added security of surveillance equipment. In September of 2016, a 24-year-old female lifeguard was abducted and raped at gunpoint while working alone at a condominium pool in Alexandria, Va.
Rescue footage might also be a useful educational tool.
“I think it could be invaluable to analyzing and teaching, so people could look at how things happened in a rescue and discern what they did right what they did wrong,” Anderson said.
Of course, there’s the flip-side to consider. In the court of law, camera footage could provide damning evidence that a guard bungled a rescue attempt.
And in no way would wearing a body camera, as they're currently designed, actually help prevent a drowning. “The camera can’t see what the lifeguard can't see,” said Larry Newell, vice president of education services at Ellis & Associates, an aquatic risk management firm based in Orlando, Fla.
Even if footage was broadcast to a bank of monitors, allowing a supervisor to ensure proper scanning techniques, that too could be problematic.
“If you have 20 to 40 lifeguards, you’d have 20 to 40 different views, and the impracticality of that we already know,” Newell added. “It doesn’t work.”
Newell is also skeptical that shaky POV camera footage would be much use, and he wonders if the device would stay on when jumping into a pool. Also, how much data could these things possibly capture?Currently, cheap sunglasses with built-in cameras offer about an hour of record time. Newell wonders: Would guards be expected to turn cameras on prior to making a rescue?
And what about maintaining the devices? Charging them daily and dealing with memory cards could be a hassle.
The technology poses privacy concerns, as well. Would patrons feel comfortable with lifeguards recording them?
“You’re probably going to want on your release a notation or disclaimer that says lifeguards may be equipped with body-camera technology to further your safety,” Anderson advised.
Also, some experts question the need for wearables when many facilities are already equipped with overhead security cameras. Besides that, there are better alternatives, they say, such as underwater surveillance systems that alert guards to potential drownings.
And perhaps the biggest deal-breaker is the device's potential to turn aspiring guards away from the profession. Tom Hellmann, a recreation manager in Elk Grove, Calif., poses this question: Who wants to work for minimum wage when your every move is under constant scrutiny?
“It builds a sense of mistrust, which is counterproductive when building a high-performing team," Hellman said. “Here’s a tool that says I don’t trust you.”
Still, Anderson doesn’t dismiss the possibility that lifeguard agencies will at least experiment with body cameras. The technology has a ways to go yet, but it might one day make their jobs a little easier.
“Will there be sight enhancements and sound enhancements?” he asked. “I think it’s approaching a certainty.”