Technology to End Childhood Drowning

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Roughly 10 Americans drown each day and for those between the ages of 1 and 4, it is the leading cause of unintentional deaths. Ian Waldie/Getty

April 8, 2014, began as a postcard-perfect, cerulean-skied South Florida day. Harmani and Harmony West, 2-year-old twins of Deerfield Beach, Florida, had whiled away the morning hours under the care of their uncle, coloring and playing with dolls, waiting for their parents to return home from their work shift at Target. When their parents arrived a little past noon, Harmani and Harmony cuddled in bed with Mom and Dad for their afternoon nap. Their parents were the first to fall asleep.

They awoke to a nightmare: their daughters missing, the heavy front door of their apartment ajar. Somehow the girls had slipped out—pushing open the front door that the toddlers had never been able to open—and walked down two flights of stairs to one of the apartment complex’s glistening pools. According to the family’s attorney, Andrew Yaffa, the pool gate was “stuck in the open position, and had been broken for days—even though tenants had complained.” The girls’ father, Howard West, spotted his little ones surrounded by police and EMT workers, struggling to bring them back to life. Minutes before, a vacationing North Carolina couple had pulled out their bodies, called 911 and initiated CPR. But it was too late. “We live with a pain that no one can take away,” says West. “And even though we have a new baby, [3-month-old] Heaven, she doesn’t replace the loss. She can’t take away the pain.”

The numbers will leave you with a sinking feeling: Roughly 10 Americans drown each day. Among children, like the West twins, between the ages of 1 and 4 drowning is the No. 1 cause of unintentional death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most childhood accidents occur in swimming pools. Summer is, of course, the deadliest season.

Much of the risk stems from children swimming when they shouldn’t. In a 2010 University of Memphis study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, more than half of the kids sampled in six urban cities reported little to low swimming ability. “Yet many of these same kids tell us they will go in the water at least five times in the summer,” says Carol Irwin, one of the study’s authors. While countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Bangladesh require swimming lessons as part of their public school curriculum, that’s not the case in the United States. A handful of state legislators have pushed for taxpayer-funded lessons, but results—mostly because it’s hard to find funding—have been lukewarm. Instead, the burden has fallen on local recreational centers, national organizations like the American Red Cross and USA Swimming, and, of course, parents.

Many are turning to new consumer technologies. One example is the SEAL SwimSafe band, a lightweight necklace worn by swimmers. When submerged beyond a preset number of seconds, the radio-frequency-controlled band and its corresponding control hub (placed outside the water) will set off a series of graduated alarms and strobe lights, alerting guardians or lifeguards of potential distress.

Dr. Graham Snyder, a father of two young kids, engineer and emergency room physician in Raleigh, North Carolina, is behind SwimSafe. “Drowning doesn’t look like a struggle, there is no yelling or arm waving. It is painfully silent,” says Snyder, who has treated numerous victims and spent hours studying surveillance videos of public pool accidents. “If adults don’t know what to look for, they can miss the signs. It looks like a game, the child is rhythmically bobbing up and down, until they don’t come up again.”

Snyder spent the past five years developing his monitoring band, which he says is useful for swimmers of all levels and ages: nonswimmers (instantaneous alarms); relay-racing children (20 seconds); adult athletes (who can safely swim underwater for up to a minute); and the elderly. A hub, charger and band retail for around $400; each extra band is $150. One hub can monitor dozens of bands at once. Over 15,000 pool and spa stores across the U.S. will sell the sets, but Snyder is quick to point out that SwimSafe does not replace lessons or adult supervision. “This is just another layer of protection for when people are on high alert and ready to fix a dangerous situation,” he says.

Several YMCAs across North Carolina are already using SwimSafe bands in their summer programs. Later this fall, a major cruise line will offer passengers the bands. Kathleen Wollin Pluchinsky says she wishes the bands had been around in 2007, when her 4-year-old son, John, drowned at a posh Houston summer camp. Even though John had taken many swimming lessons and even though lifeguards and counselors were in and around the pool (the camp boasted an almost 2-1 adult-to-child ratio), his struggle for air went unnoticed.

“Every safeguard that I expected would be in place relied on human beings to implement, identify or manage,” says Pluchinsky. “Despite the failure at every human level, I believe that John would be alive today if he had been fitted with a monitor.”  

Another device aimed at curtailing swimming tragedies is the iSwimband, a battery-powered monitor that attaches to a headband or a pair of goggles. After a neighborhood child nearly drowned at his Connecticut summer camp, three fathers joined forces to design and manufacture the product. The iSwimband uses Bluetooth technology to connect to an app parents can download for free onto their IOS or Android device. If a child is underwater for a predetermined number of seconds, a piercing siren is triggered. The iSwimband retails for $59.99 and is sold at Toys R Us and online at Target and Wal-Mart. “We figure if parents will spend $120 on a pair of Nikes for their kids, they can afford an iSwimband,” says Paul Newcomb, the company’s chief operating officer. To date, over 16,000 orders have been placed. Paul Chu, the company’s CEO, says that global sales are projected to reach 100,000 in the next year. The next generation of iSwimbands, he says, will link up to a cloud-based service and allow for up to 100 bands to connect at once.

These monitors are not the first of their kind. They have roots in the simpler Safety Turtle, a battery-powered wristband for nonswimmers that launched in 1999. A bright-colored turtle attaches to a nylon band that is secured by lock and key. It looks like a prize you’d find in a Happy Meal, except that the second it gets wet a radio signal is sent to the base, triggering an alarm. A base and single band sell for $150. RJE, the company that manufactures Safety Turtle, also sells a similar device designed for pets.

Aquatic safety gizmos are not just a poolside priority. In Santiago, Chile, X-Cam and Green Solutions have partnered to bring “drone-aided lifeguard towers” to the shore. Equipped with GPS trackers, specialized drones will transport and release flotation devices to potential victims, as well as relay instructions through built-in speakers. Studies have shown that a drone can reach a victim almost three minutes faster than a skilled lifeguard. X-Cam’s drones fly on rechargeable lithium batteries that are rebooted at their solar-powered towers, which will also double as cellphone charging stations, Wi-Fi centers and promotional hubs. Businesses are being courted to sponsor the $2,000 drones, their hubs and human operators in exchange for getting their logo on the towers. So far, two of Chile’s most crowded beaches—Viña del Mar and Algarrobo—will debut these rescue drones next summer (Chile’s summer months are December through February). Similar programs are also being developed in the United States and in Iran.

Still, not everyone is comfortable with widgets wading in their waters. “In supervised settings, technology can add a layer of protection and reduce certain types of drownings, but they can also contribute to a relaxed sense of supervision on the part of parents and lifeguards,” says Francesco Pia, a renowned drowning-prevention expert. Pia says nothing can replace lessons. A study in JAMA Pediatrics concluded that for many youngsters, lessons reduced the risk of drowning by 88 percent. “But lessons will not make your child drown-proof,” counters Pluchinsky, who after the death of her son launched her swim-safety site, swimsafe4life.com, and started numerous local and state safety campaigns. “So many other activities have already embraced technology to make them safer. Isn’t it time that swimming followed suit?”