This article by Courtney Cameron originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "From fencing to artificial intelligence: Layers of protection for seamless aquatic safety." Click here to read the full article.
Lifeguards might be considered specialized guardian angels, keeping catastrophe at bay and providing peace of mind for aquatics facility patrons and operators alike. However, lifeguards aren't omniscient beings with supernatural gifts of sight — they are, in many cases, teens or young adults with a high level of personal responsibility and limited authority to make positioning changes to increase their own efficacy.
After a five-year, double-blind study in which her team evaluated trends in aquatic recreation and how those trends affect lifeguards' vision, 40-year aquatics industry veteran Maria Bella of Aqua Conscience determined that many lifeguards are being set up to fail — and she personally knows guards who have carried the guilt of failure with them for life. With the development of Aqua Conscience's three-dimensional ANGELS — Area Notification Gear for Effective Lifeguard Surveillance — devices, Bella set out to rectify the issues common to lifeguard surveillance stations and formations and give guards a fighting chance when it comes to keeping watch over every swimmer in their designated area.
Over the course of her work investigating drowning incidents, Bella has seen evidence of a disturbing pattern. "One of the things I've seen through many investigations is that we have very well-intentioned lifeguards scanning the way they think they should be scanning and sitting where they've been told to sit, and they're set up for failure," she says. "They cannot identify a drowning victim throughout their entire assigned zone because either the chairs are too low, they're in the wrong position, or the lifeguards are doing things like counting heads rather than scanning all the way to the bottom of the pool in a consistent manner using long-standing, highly-regarded search methodology."
The ANGELS devices are designed to test lifeguards' vision throughout their assigned surveillance zone in three dimensions. "If they only have a two-dimensional view, they can't tell if somebody's struggling or playing," Bella says. "They need to be able to see in three dimensions. The ANGELS devices allow the lifeguards to sit where they're told to sit and know immediately either, yes, they can see their entire zone in three dimensions, or no, they can only see so far — so the zone needs to be smaller or they need to be higher."
Setting up for success
According to Bella, the industry has made a shift in the past few years to address the drowning crisis by moving toward more shallow-water pools. This also brought in a generation of lower lifeguard stands. "As soon as you put lifeguards on low stands, the optics change. Glare is a bigger problem, turbulence is a bigger problem, and line-of-sight obstructions — patrons in the way of the lifeguard's line of sight — are a much bigger problem. So we went with shallow water and low chairs, and we still have drownings in the shallow water because the lifeguards aren't positioned where they can identify a submerged victim because their zones are too big or their chairs are too low," she says. "They can keep their low chairs, that's fine, but they're going to need more lifeguards because the zones have to be smaller."
Constructed with low-profile weights to maintain their position on the bottom of the pool and conspicuous orange wings that float in water to form a three-dimensional shape, the ANGELS devices address two concerns at once, ensuring that lifeguards are properly positioned and that they're scanning thoroughly. If the guards can see the devices in three dimensions, Bella says, their eyes will be able to capture enough information from any object at or below the surface of the water so the brain can accurately interpret it.
The devices can — and should — be used during open swim, swim team, swim lessons and any other regularly scheduled programming to test visibility during real-world conditions. "It was engineered to be pool- and patron-friendly, and the reason is that prior to this, what the industry used for testing were mannequins — and patrons don't like seeing mannequins in the water. It's very disturbing to them, even when we say, 'Hey, ignore that body at the bottom of the pool,' it's still very disturbing," Bella says. "The ANGELS devices don't bother patrons, the patrons don't bother them, and the facility can get accurate, reliable results."
In addition to the lifeguard positioning and training tool, Aqua Conscience offers an auditor's kit to enable aquatics facilities to self-audit and train. "Both of these products allow for scientifically auditing lifeguard zone boundaries and validating lifeguard chair height and position," Bella says. "Additionally, the lifeguard positioning and training tool allows facilities to train their lifeguards to scan every cubic foot of water in the assigned surveillance zone. They don't need to have us come out and do it. They can do it themselves quickly and easily and very inexpensively."
To put things in perspective, hosting an auditor can run up to $30,000 depending on travel costs, while a simple audit can be completed with seven ANGELS devices for roughly $600, and the scanning training can be completed with 35 ANGELS devices for $2,500. The ANGELS devices help make sure the guards can do what Bella calls their "critical duty."
However facility owners decide to use this tool, Bella makes it clear that she has one goal — to set lifeguards up to succeed, for their own sake, as well as that of the patrons. "The whole reason I spent the time doing the study and developing these devices is because we don't want to have drownings in pools where lifeguards are on duty," she says. "That's a given, but then I see the other side of it, where the lifeguard is set up to fail. They don't know that they're set up to fail. Somebody dies on their watch and the lifeguard is traumatized. And it changes their life."
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