At a time when some are predicting that artificial intelligence, or A.I., will force the extinction of the human race, it is at least a little reassuring that new technology can also be used for good. For the first time, lifeguards at East Hampton Main Beach will have the ability to fly a drone to help pinpoint swimmers in distress.
Before high-quality drones became widely available, the fastest option in a missing-person search here was to call for a Suffolk County police helicopter. Precious minutes would pass as rescuers waited for the eye in the sky — if one was available. More recently, the local police have put drones into use, but even then delays were likely while the equipment and qualified “pilot” rushed to the beach.
East Hampton Village’s new drone will be able to fly day or night. An infrared sensor aboard could detect a person in the water by their body heat alone. The model chosen for the job also has an impressive useful range, about a mile, or the distance from Main Beach to Georgica and nearly to the Maidstone Club in the other direction. Motorized “quads” available to the village lifeguards will be able to quickly get the drone and an operator to a more distant location. Drones could also help determine false alarms more quickly.
Elsewhere, lifeguards have been adding drones to their kits and testing their capabilities, including dropping floatation aids to victims to support them until help arrives. The drone-aided rescue of a 14-year-old boy swept away from shore in Spain by a rip current last year made international headlines. These capabilities should make unmanned aerial devices like this a common sight at beaches as more lifeguard crews adopt them. The mile-plus section of ocean beach in Montauk fronting its downtown would seem an obvious place for one, for example. But for the residents and visitors alike, high-tech equipment is no substitute for making safe choices around the water.
To that end, both the town and the village have excellent junior lifeguard programs starting this weekend that teach children as young as 9 the basics of dealing with the often unpredictable ocean surf and how to safely return to shore and help others should they find themselves in a bad situation. Children even younger (starting at age 6) can get a head start in the town’s Nipper Guard program offered at bay beaches. Not only do these invaluable programs “water-proof” local kids, they also create a pipeline for future lifeguards who will maintain the strong tradition of safe ocean beaches that we should all be grateful for.
East Hampton lifeguards take pride in the fact that there has never been a drowning at a beach while it was under their watch, as well they should. People who swim at unprotected beaches or after lifeguards leave do so at serious risk — Zane Kitburi, 31, a bartender at the Surf Lodge in Montauk, drowned at Ditch Plain Beach last summer. A 911 call came in at about 7:30 p.m.; town lifeguards had been off duty since 5.
At unprotected beaches — whether outside normal lifeguard hours or at beaches that don’t have lifeguards to begin with — East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue’s 80-plus members step up to aid in water rescues year round and also help train young people and provide ongoing training and drills for guards of all ages. Current and aspiring guards also have the support of the Hampton Lifeguard Association.
East End Ocean Rescue, based in East Hampton, has been a leader in educating the public about the dangers of the ocean. This season, it is handing out laminated cards, describing how to identify rips and how to get out of them without succumbing to panic. It has also provided similar signs for posting at the beaches. Its “Break the Grip of the Rip” poster can be downloaded at eastendoceanrescue.org. The group has suggested that landlords make a point of providing them to their summer renters.
Drones or not, the key message is that people should only swim where and when lifeguards are on the job. This is something that we wish more folks — visitors to the East End, especially — would heed.