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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2003

Cyber lifeguard finds swimmers in distress

BY JANE ELIZABETH
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
In a training session, a lifeguard lies at the bottom of a pool equipped with the Poseidon system in Medina, Ohio. In a training session, a lifeguard lies at the bottom of a pool equipped with the Poseidon system in Medina, Ohio.
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MEDINA, Ohio - When the air horn sounded on Wednesday, lifeguard Heather Quesada was taking a break from her job at the community center's pool.

As they've been taught to do at the sound of the piercing siren, Ms. Quesada and other lifeguards in the community center dashed past the double glass doors leading to the massive, eight-lane indoor pool. The head lifeguard was already there, summoned by a buzzing pager clipped to his shorts. Alarms were screaming from all 14 loudspeakers and red lights were flashing from all four walls.

A young man was underwater, motionless.

His apparent plight had been caught by six underwater cameras as well as eight other cameras perched in the ceiling above the pool. Images of the swimmer from every imaginable angle had been transmitted to a computer screen installed on the wall next to the head lifeguard's office.

Programmed to detect any human figure that remains still for more than 10 seconds, the computer immediately triggered the alarms that summoned staff.

This time, the emergency turned out to be an embarrassed swimmer who was trying to see how long he could hold his breath underwater.

The high-tech equipment being used in Medina is called the Poseidon system. It is one of several new techniques pools around the nation are using to try to eliminate drownings and near-drownings.

Nearly 1,500 children drown in the United States each year, many of them in public pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every drowning, four children are admitted to hospitals for near-drownings.

Northwest Ohio has had its share of drownings in pools as well. Last October, a 9-year-old Antwerp boy drowned in an Antwerp school pool. In 2001, a 17-year-old Toledo boy drowned in a hotel pool in Cincinnati, and in 1999 a 10-year-old Cincinnati boy drowned in a Toledo hotel pool.

The Poseidon system is designed to short-circuit such incidents. And a few false alarms aside, the staff in Medina couldn't be happier about being the first community center in the nation to feature the high-tech drowning detection system.

“We are very proud of it,” said Steve Sharar, 18, a lifeguard who was trained at the center after the system was installed in April.

Poseidon was developed about five years ago by the Paris-based Vision IQ technology company and is more commonly used in Europe. It's been making slow inroads in the United States since the company opened its North American headquarters in Atlanta and began promoting the system at trade shows.

Medina Community Recreation Center is the sixth pool in the nation to install Poseidon, and the only one in Ohio. There are none in any state bordering Ohio.

That will change later this month, however, when the community center in nearby Solon, Ohio, opens its new pool, which features an even more elaborate Poseidon system.

It will be a bittersweet moment for Debra Stein of Solon.

On July 13, 2000, Debra and Michael Stein's youngest son, Jeremy, drowned in a pool at a nearby summer camp. He disappeared while diving for pennies in four feet of water.

Though several other children were in the pool and camp counselors and lifeguards were watching, Jeremy was unconscious by the time someone noticed he was at the bottom of the pool and not moving.

Today, authorities still aren't sure precisely how the lively 9-year-old drowned; Jeremy was a good swimmer and had no medical problems.

But Debra Stein is sure that the high-tech system being installed in her community's pool can only help ensure the safety of other young swimmers.

“If it would save one life, it would be well worth it,'' she said.

Jeremy Stein's death was fresh in the memory of Solon's parks and recreation director, Russell Schneider, when he studied the Poseidon brochures he picked up at an aquatic trade show in Orlando, Fla.

He was sold. “I had never seen anything like it,” Schneider said. “In theory, the Poseidon would have recognized that Jeremy was not moving.”

His pool's Poseidon system is expected to become operational on July 13, the three-year anniversary of Jeremy Stein's drowning.

In large, crowded pools, “A lifeguard can only keep an eye on 30 kids at a time,” Mr. Schneider said. “We're asking a lot of 18-year-old kids.”

The system would add $120,000 to the Solon pool's cost, but Mr. Schneider became its biggest advocate, along with Debra Stein.

When Ms. Stein heard the system was being considered, she pushed for it, she said.

She called council members and lobbied one in particular who seemed to be wavering. Council members unanimously approved the addition.

Poseidon isn't cheap. The cost can range from $75,000 to more than $150,000, according to Cindy Force, a spokesman for Poseidon Technologies in Atlanta.

“The cost depends on the size and depth of the pool, the height of the ceiling, unique textures,” and other factors, Ms. Force said.

Also, it's usually cheaper to install Poseidon at a new pool than it is to retrofit an existing pool, Mr. Schneider said.

Medina's system added about $82,000 to the cost of its new rec center. Both the Medina and Solon pools got a discount on installations because they're being used as demonstration sites.

Aquatics companies, water safety experts, and pool managers from around the country have called or visited the Ohio pools to learn how Poseidon works.

Solon's indoor water park- style pool is four feet deep, so underwater cameras aren't necessary. Instead, the pool will have 23 above-water cameras to track swimmers' motions.

Using a grid system, the computer shows the coordinates of swimmers in trouble, which allows the lifeguard to jump in at precisely the right spot, Mr. Schneider said.

In U.S. pools, Poseidon hasn't been credited with a “save” - rescuing a swimmer - Ms. Force said.

But she said a French teen swimming his daily laps about three years ago was spotted by Poseidon's cameras as he sank, unconscious, to the pool floor.

Lifeguards rescued him and he survived to tell the tale at Poseidon trade shows and in advertisements.

Lifeguards can be trained quickly to use the computerized system, Medina pool manager Steve Rhein said.

He conducts a Poseidon training course for new lifeguards that takes about 21/2 hours, he said.

Poseidon's creators and clients emphasize that the system isn't a substitute for a lifeguard and prefer to call it “the lifeguard's third eye.”

“There's just an added comfort with this system,” said Medina lifeguard Stephen Miller, 17. “Like, if there's a glare in the water, [the cameras] can see better than the lifeguards.”

Because the alarms sound only when a swimmer becomes motionless, “You still have to watch,” Ms. Quesada said. “The cameras can't save anyone.”

In fact, she said, lifeguards were aware of the swimmer who caused last week's false alarm before the system sounded the alert. The lifeguards go through regular drills, using dummies or another lifeguard holding a 10-pound weight to simulate an unconscious swimmer.

To make sure practical jokers don't try to trip the system, they're also instructed not to explain to friends how it works.

“Really, many people don't even know we have it,” said Medina's aquatics manager, Darlene Donkin.

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The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jane Elizabeth is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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