Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Growing eyes in the back of your head.

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on August 3, 2011


Let’s conduct a scientific experiment. Get a plastic water bottle. Put in a teaspoon of sand, dirt or grit. Fill the bottle with water and shake vigorously. Now put your hand behind the bottle and tell me how many fingers you are holding up. Difficult if not impossible.

Now imagine that your child is at a lake having an absolutely wonderful time. Could be anywhere – friend’s cabin, summer camp, family vacation. There is a lifeguard on duty diligently scanning the happy crowd. Everyone is having a great day. Only your child is suddenly in trouble or just wanders out of your sight for a minute – and sinks quietly below the surface. And it is quiet and undramatic – re-read Mario Vittone’s brilliant article ‘Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning’.

I spent much of my childhood swimming in open water – family reunions at my cousin’s cabin, Lake Michigan, trips to various beaches – nothing really beats being outdoors surrounded by fresh water and I’d love to see all kids have that opportunity. The problem is that many kids have only swum in a pool before, or aren’t very good swimmers, or they just get into trouble in the water.

Bodies disappear under water, even crystal clear pool water. The best-trained and most diligent lifeguard can’t see through the equivalent of frosted glass to the bottom unless they know to look for someone. This is an area where we can harness technology to save lives without detracting from the fun. I recently learned about WahoooSMS, a new product that actually gives lifeguards ‘eyes’ under the water. Each swimmer has a sensor on a band that fits around the head, like the band on a pair of goggles. If the sensor is submerged for too long an alarm goes off at the lifeguard post. The lifeguards can then use the system in tandem with standard rescue procedures to find the victim.

A similar product that I like is Safety Turtle that has a sensor in a wristband. Ideal for those with small children who have a tendency to take off headbands and who are known for their Houdini-like escape abilities. Both systems have an alarm that goes off when the device is submerged – the difference is in the scope of use. Large-scale recreation facility with older kids vs. a more individual toddler-oriented parent intervention aid. Anyone visiting grandparents with an unfenced pool or a lake house anytime soon?

I’m violently opposed to programs which are fear-based when it comes to water safety because I believe they have the opposite effect – they discourage people from learning to interact with the water safely and respectfully and leave kids more at-risk. But, I’m also pragmatic. Kids are escape artists and even the best, most experienced swimmer can get into trouble. It’s simply not possible for even the most vigilant guard to spot a submerged body in a murky lake or even the clear but swirling water in a pool.

We have the technology – let’s use it to keep our kids safe while they have fun. I’d also like to see technology furthered to see how it could become standard and affordable for everyone who lives near water. A $10 band that sends an alarm to your phone? And how about a $1 band for sale in low-income countries?

Besides, it will just reinforce your kid’s belief that you have eyes in the back of your head – and that’s a good thing.

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