Spurred by the November drowning of a 15-year-old student, administrators in Fort Wayne, Ind., are using new technology to improve the safety of their swimming pools.

Fort Wayne Community Schools will install cameras underwater and above the pool to scan for troubled swimmers as part of a new computer-aided drowning detection system, called Poseidon.

Lawrence Norwood died Nov. 21 after his classmates had been dismissed from a class at the natatorium, a state-of-the-art aquatics center built to attract state and regional meets to South Side High School. He went unnoticed for nearly an hour while a class was in the water at the other end of the building.

“It was such a tragedy,” said Deborah Morgan, public information officer for the district. “After [Norwood’s drowning], the district kept searching for what we could do to ensure safety in the natatorium. I think this will go along way. … We’re really trying to rebuild confidence in the aquatics program.”

Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn said Poseidon is believed to be one of the first systems of its kind in the United States.

If a swimmer is in trouble or remains motionless for too long, the system uses a beeper and monitor to alert lifeguards in less than 15 seconds. The system pinpoints the exact location of the problem, and a workstation monitor records the incident.

According to Poseidon Technologies, a French company, the system consists of several interactive components.

Underwater optical cameras are sealed within the pool walls, under the water’s surface, and each unit has a combined field of vision exceeding 180 degrees. Overhead cameras that look down into the pool are mounted above the water.

The cameras are connected to a central processor, an on-site computer that analyzes all images instantaneously. These images are displayed on the touch-sensitive display screens of supervision workstations, which are posted in the lifeguard stations next to the pool and serve as the system’s command center.

Lifeguards are given lightweight, water-resistant alarm pagers–the size and shape of a traditional beeper–to wear while they are on duty.

When the computer identifies a suspicious situation, such as a slowly sinking or immobile victim, it triggers an alarm pager at the appropriate lifeguard’s workstation. The lifeguard can view the workstation screen to determine exactly where the victim is located and make the rescue.

“We’re really excited about [the system],” said Morgan. “This is not designed to eliminate lifeguards, but to work with them. It really is a ‘third eye,’ and I think it can help save lives.”

According to Dave Bertoni, vice president of marketing and business development for Poseidon Technologies, the system also includes an “after-hours detection feature.”

In most school environs, the pool is only open during specific hours, Bertoni explained. “What we’ve heard is that there can often be problems with kids getting into the pool when there are no lifeguards,” he said.

Bertoni said the Poseidon system can be set to detect swimmers in danger, or it can be set to detect any motion in the pool at all.

“If the mode is set to detect any activity and a student is in the pool after hours, an alarm sounds in a designated area, such as the security office or the athletic director’s office,” he said.

Poseidon Technologies developed the pool-safety device in Europe, where the company currently has ten sites up and running.

In November, an aquatic center in Ancenis, France, reported the first rescue–an 18-year-old male–attributable to the Poseidon system, Bertoni said.

According to the company, the system detected an unconscious swimmer at the bottom of the pool, and the pool’s lifeguards intervened immediately and brought the swimmer to the surface.

“Just 16 seconds after he was detected, he was out of the pool,” said Bertoni. “He was unconscious and had taken in some water, but he walked out of the hospital the next day with a clean bill of health.”

The system is costly, however, and the price tag may prove to be prohibitive to some schools.

In exchange for being a pilot school site in the United States, Fort Wayne Community Schools will have Poseidon for what it would cost to install the cameras–$8,000 to $12,000–instead of about ten times that cost, Morgan said.

Bertoni admits the system is expensive, but he said if the system were budgeted into the initial capitol outlay for a new pool instead of being added to an existing one, the cost is more manageable.

“The cost for the Poseidon system is about 2 percent of the total cost for a new pool,” he said. He estimated that installing Poseidon in a typical 25-meter pool would cost about $75,000, but that cost could be as low as $50,000 or as high as $110,000, depending on the size of the pool.

Installations also are in progress in Sarasota, Fla., Toronto, and Dedham, Mass.

“Not only will we have a safe pool, but the safest pool in the country,” said school board President Jon Olinger.

Installation is expected to be completed at Fort Wayne by the end of June.

Links:

Fort Wayne Community Schools
1200 S. Clinton St.
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
phone(219)425-7200
http://www.fwcs.k12.in.us.

Poseidon Technologies (U.S. location)
100 Cummings Center
Suite 217C
Beverly, MA 01915
phone (866) 342-0980 (toll-free)
http://www.poseidon-tech.com.