Can better technology prevent drownings?

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgive a scary statistic that may interfere with your summertime fun, but the month of June is already half over, which means that if past trends marked by the CDC have held true, then more than 200 people have already drowned in the U.S. since Memorial Day. That toll at beaches, in pools and bathtubs, and around other bodies of water doesn’t include the approximately 20 others who drowned in boating-related incidents. Nor does it reflect all the undocumented, largely preventable situations in which people nearly drown, an experience that can do permanent neurological harm.

Some of these untimely deaths befell children and adults who were genuinely alone at the time, but as I noted in a blog post from two years ago on this subject, a tragically high number occurred in public places, often right under the noses of parents, spouses, friends, other swimmers, and lifeguards. (That’s how my father’s youngest sister died in a crowded Boston city pool many years ago.)

The fundamental problems are twofold. First, people do not always take the precautions that could minimize the chances of accidental drowning, which include:

  • Teaching children to swim.
  • Closely supervising swimmers, even seemingly water-competent adults.
  • Fully fencing in pools.
  • Drinking alcohol judiciously before going into or around the water.
  • Being aware of the risks for people with seizure disorders.
  • Having life jackets or other appropriate water safety equipment (and not making the mistake of thinking that inflatable toys, floats, or rafts will do the job).
  • Learning CPR.
  • Heeding posted warnings about riptides or other dangerous currents.

The far more surprising risk factor, however, is that people don’t recognize drowning when they see it. As Coast Guard safety specialist Mario Vittone blogged in “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” in 2010 (in a post that I’m glad to see Slate has recently republished), actual drowning doesn’t involve the frenzied going-down-for-the-third-time thrashing and sputtering shown in movies. Because the instinctive drowning response overrides voluntary movements and prioritizes breathing over speaking, drowning people typically can’t yell for wave for aid. Untrained onlookers may have no clue that the placid, submerged figure in the water is fighting for life.

(Physician Graham Snyder has also written a clear, instructive post about the signs of drowning and defenses against it, which I recommend.)

The need to be more mindful of the established drowning prevention measures goes without saying, as does the important of spreading the word about what drowning really looks like. Those steps alone could hugely reduce drowning deaths. Yet it also seems worth asking what modern technology could also do to help.

Pool alarms, designed to signal when somebody gets into the water, have been around for some years. Surface wave alarms monitor the movements of the water’s surface and sound when the waves or chop suggest something has fallen or jumped into the pool. Subsurface disturbance alarms look for turbulence beneath the waves. My cursory scrutiny of reviews suggests that safety experts favor the subsurface units, which may be more reliable and less subject to false alarms from the wind. There are also immersion alarm systems in which children wear a wristband or necklace that trips an alarm if it is submerged; these can alert parents if children playing by a pool fall or jump in without permission. All these systems can help prevent tragedies when swimming is forbidden, but their weakness is that they aren’t of much use during inadequately supervised swims.

A more sophisticated version of the latter under development by emergency physician Graham Snyder is the SEAL wearable swim monitor and drowning detection system. Swimmers would wear neck bands that hold electronic sensors and wireless units. According to the SEAL’s marketing information, circuitry in each neck band can identify signs of its wearer’s swimming distress and radio a warning back to a central hub near parents or a lifeguard—letting them know not only that one of the swimmers is in trouble, but also which swimmer it is.

Swimmers wearing SEAL neck bands. (Credit: SEAL)

Swimmers wearing SEAL neck bands. (Credit: SEAL)

I don’t know whether the SEAL system is a great idea. Based on the reader comments in a recent Slate article about it, opinions seem to be mixed. (In case anyone wonders, I have no financial interests or other connections to SEAL, Snyder, or any other water safety concerns.) A crowdfunding project to help SEAL get off the ground has been running on Indiegogo; perhaps unfortunately, as I post this, it seems to have fallen short of its goals.

Irrespective of what happens with SEAL, though, I have to think that there must be more that technology could do to save the lives of drowning swimmers. Vigilance and preparations of the sort I listed above are surely the first and best measures; the right technological fix could be an important complement to those, not a replacement for them. What could be done, though?

For example, what about a system that combined some of the passive features of the pool monitoring systems and the intelligence of SEAL? A limitation of Snyder’s invention is that it can only monitor swimmers who are wearing neck bands. Larger numbers swimmers, or ones who don’t cooperate with wearing the neck bands, are on their own. Could a subsurface pool unit monitor multiple swimmers were not wearing individual sensors, looking for patterns in their movements or the turbulence they created indicative of drowning? Could it be built and sold inexpensively enough to be a widely used consumer item?

Would some other technological approach work better? Or is there a better way to enlist more compliance with the nontechnological solutions? Leave your suggestions and ideas, half baked or otherwise, in comments. I’ll be excited to see what you propose.

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