Edmonton to install underwater cameras at city pools – but are they a good idea?

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WATCH ABOVE: A recent report said the City of Edmonton needs to ramp up safety when it comes to public pools. Now city officials have a plan to do that - underwater cameras. But as Julia Wong reports, there are some concerns – Oct 23, 2016

The City of Edmonton plans to install underwater cameras at city pools, but there is some concern over the effectiveness of this type of technology.

The city has issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for “the provision, implementation, optional ongoing maintenance, technical and non-technical support and enhancement services for an Underwater Drowning Prevention System.”

Two drownings in 2012 played a factor in the city’s interest in this type of technology – one where a seven-year-old boy drowned at the O’Leary Fitness and Leisure Centre pool, and one where a man drowned at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

READ MORE: Some changes already implemented at Edmonton pools after boy’s drowning

An aquatic safety report conducted in the aftermath of the two incidents suggested “exploring emerging surveillance and warning technologies that help lifeguards monitor what is happening in the pool.”

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The RFP states the system will provide “a full view camera capturing the underwater area of the pool that can be seen by the on-deck lifeguard staff and other operational staff from areas outside of the pool or pool deck.”

Edmonton may be one of the larger cities to install an underwater camera system at public pools. Currently, no such program exists in Vancouver, Regina, Calgary or Halifax.

“[The system] monitors swimmer’s activities and identifies people in distress, underwater visual images,” said Rob Campbell, supervisor of aquatic strategies for the city.

“This will put a little bit of eyes under the water and help us with identifying people in distress.”

Campbell added that the underwater cameras would not replace lifeguards, but rather supplement them.

“You have a lot of glare on the surface of the pool coming from either sunlight or the lights above the pool, which have to be there, and what we find a lot of the times the lifeguard can’t see that well below the surface,” he said.

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“During a distress situation the lifeguards are notified on the device they are wearing/carrying that an alarm has been triggered and a visual of the situation along with the specific area of the pool will be sent to the device,” the RFP reads.

He said the city has already worked with updating signage and cutting down glare. He said the underwater cameras were “an obvious next step.”

The benefits of using underwater cameras

Jerry Johnson is the business unit manager for North America for Poseidon, a company that sells underwater cameras. He provided some background on underwater cameras systems to Global News; Poseidon will not be bidding on the RFP for the camera system.

Poseidon sells cameras to public pools in the United States, the YMCA, colleges and universities, as well as fitness centres.

Johnson said his company’s underwater cameras use software that analyzes activity in a pool and can track movements, such as when an individual drifts to the bottom of the pool. He said once a person has been motionless for approximately 10 seconds, a series of alarms are sounded to notify lifeguards about the incident.

“An elderly gentleman swimming laps had a heart attack, sank to the bottom of the pool. The system was able to identify him to the lifeguards quickly enough for them to get to him,” he explained.

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He said there have been roughly 30 lives saved in the last 15 years globally as a result of the technology and that there has been no drowning in pools that have the Poseidon system. However, he states the technology is not completely fool-proof.

Why it might not help Alberta’s drowning numbers

A 2016 drowning report from The Lifesaving Society states there have been 28 drownings in Alberta in 2014 and 15 in 2015.

However, only eight per cent of all drowning deaths in Alberta were in a pool. More people die in bathtubs, rivers and lakes.

“Half of all pool fatalities occurred in private pools and half occurred in public pools,” the report reads.

READ MORE: A child can drown 24 hours after being in water: What parents should know

Barbara Costache, the chief administrative officer for the Lifesaving Society of Alberta, said that, while one drowning is too many, drownings in public pools are “not as big of an issue.”

“We have a very small percentage. When a drowning does occur in a public pool, it’s usually due to a series of events that leads to that tragedy,” she said.

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Costache has some hesitations about an underwater surveillance system in city pools.

“Systems can fail. It does not replace that human factor,” she said.

“The key human factor of lifeguards is they are there to prevent, to engage, to education and then to be able to recognize and respond. What the technology does is – it doesn’t prevent and it doesn’t respond. It can only assist in the recognition.”

Will cameras result in lazy lifeguards? Local expert weighs in

Those concerns are echoed by Brian Bowers, who has been a lifeguard for 33 years. He worked for the City of Edmonton aquatics department for 20 years as an aquatic programmer and has been serving as the aquatic supervisor at the University of Alberta Pool for the last four years.

READ MORE: 5 water safety tips that could save your life

Bowers said there should be no need for the underwater cameras at city pools.

“For the underwater cameras to be effectives, the lifeguard has to miss what they were doing and not do their job properly. If they’re not doing their jobs properly, the underwater cameras are great. But if they know the underwater cameras are there for them in the end to prevent it – they might not do their jobs properly.”

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Bowers is worried an underwater surveillance system could project a false sense of security.

“I’m more concerned about lifeguards forgetting what their actual job is, which is prevention of the incident from occurring in the first place,” he said.

“The fact that the cameras are there watching what’s happening underneath the water, allowing the staff to react to a situation that they may not have necessarily seen makes it a reactive type process instead of preventing it.”

Bowers said the city should be focusing its effort on other initiatives.

“Lifeguard training is the largest area where they should look at focusing their money overall,” he said.

“There’s much better ways to spend the money. It’s great as a back-up but if they train the staff better, the staff should be able to prevent the incidents from occurring in the first place.”

Bowers said there are no plans to install the underwater cameras at the university currently or in the future.

“Should we waste the money on it? Spend the money on it? I don’t necessarily think that’s necessary.”

What do swimmers think of the idea?

Swimmers appear to have mixed reaction to the city’s plan. Katie Angeles’ daughter dives at the Kinsmen three days a week.

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“I think it would be an asset. The lifeguards are really good. They’re always checking but an extra precaution, you might as well have everything that’s possible,” she said.

But swimmer Averil Finlay had reservations the system will make an impact.

“Will it reduce the number of incidents of drowning? Would that help? There are some other options possibly I think that could be explored as well” she said.

The city plans to install the cameras by the end of this year or the beginning of 2017. It will start with the Peter Hemingway Fitness and Leisure Centre. The program could then be expanded to the pool at Mill Woods and the Kinsmen Sports Centre.

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