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Lifeguards Want ‘Eyes’ Below the Surface

Thu, 07/27/2023 - 10:25

New tech has decreased response time, saved lives

John Ryan Jr., East Hampton Town’s chief lifeguard, demonstrated the proper way to hold the AquaEye at the Amagansett Life-Saving Station on Saturday.
Christine Sampson

The next wave of ocean-rescue technology is here, and the Hampton Lifeguard Association is raising money to get it into the hands of town and village lifeguards.

Called AquaEye, the handheld device uses sonar to create a sweeping 180-degree image of what’s below the surface of the water, up to 50 meters out. With its manageable weight — no bigger or heavier than a couple of bricks duct-taped together — it can be easily equipped into a first-responder vehicle and rushed to the scene of an emergency.

It works like this: With locked-straight arms, and in very slow motion, a trained user submerges the AquaEye and sweeps it slowly side to side, then back the other way. It produces images that specifically pinpoint objects in the water, including bodies, debris, and more. Its maker, an international company called VodaSafe, which also manufactures fire safety and land rescue equipment, says it works even if the water visibility is poor.

“This will shorten the length of time it takes to find a missing swimmer versus a chain search — basically, a needle in a haystack,” said Bob Pucci, a Hampton Lifeguard Association director.

John Ryan Jr., East Hampton Town’s chief lifeguard, demonstrated its use on Saturday for Alexandra King, chief of the Southampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue group. As she watched in awe, she predicted the technology would lead to “exponentially greater chances” that a search-and-rescue mission will end in a save — not in a recovery.

“Obviously in lifesaving, it’s all about response times. The quicker you get there, the better the outcome,” said T.J. Calabrese, another of the association’s directors. “If we’re able to get at least five of these” — one for each of the town and village lifeguard trucks —  “we can train every lifeguard on this technology.”

To get there, though, the Hampton Lifeguard Association needs to raise $35,000. On Saturday, it kicked off a formal fund-raiser at the Amagansett Life-Saving and Coast Guard Station, a fitting venue.

A newly re-edited version of the documentary film “Waterproof,” about the association’s origins and mission told through the guiding lens of the Ryan family, was screened. Attending the event were its director, Mae Mougin, and its Emmy-winning producer, Regina Scully of the Artemis Rising Foundation, whose late brother, Dominic Kulik, was a Hampton Lifeguard Association member.

Ms. Mougin announced that the new version of “Waterproof,” a few minutes shorter than the original, will now be available to universities, libraries, schools, and life-guarding organizations. “It’s ready to go out into the world and save lives,” she said.

Ms. Scully called it “absolute required screening” to help prevent drownings, of which there are about 4,000 in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “It is just extraordinary watching all of you train,” she told the standing-room-only crowd.

The Hampton Lifeguard Association had about $7,000 in hand — enough to cover one AquaEye — when it started the evening. As of Tuesday, it had raised another $3,000. “That’s not bad — this is the first one we’ve done,” Mr. Calabrese said.

According to VodaSafe, the AquaEye has been credited with finding at least 40 missing swimmers so far, and with reducing search times by about 87 percent. The company’s founder and chief executive officer, Carlyn Loncaric, explained in an email that it can be used in nearly every type of water body.

“AquaEye works in pretty much any water environment from lakes, ponds, quarries and oceans to moving water like rivers, streams and canals,” Ms. Loncaric wrote. “Using the device in highly aerated whitewater rivers presents a challenge to the device as the air bubbles impede the sonar, but moving water in general is not a problem. The majority of customers are using the device in lakes, ponds, and oceans that are attractive to swimmers.”

The sonar technology is also shaped by machine learning and artificial intelligence. “We taught the device what the sonar echo from a human body looks like compared to the sonar echo from other objects,” Ms. Loncaric said.

The AquaEye is being used by more than 240 agencies in 46 countries, including, on the North American continent, 40 states and eight Canadian provinces.

“The feedback we get from customers is overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. The traditional methods of search are tedious,” Ms. Loncaric wrote. “. . . Technology in the water rescue field has really stagnated, and we are proud to be leading the paradigm shift in this regard. There is a lot of talk about A.I. taking jobs, but AquaEye does not replace the heroes and rescuers, it simply enables them to conduct rescue safer, faster, and more intelligently.”

Donors to the Hampton Lifeguard Association’s fund-raising campaign can contribute online via its website, or send a check to 7 Meadow Way, East Hampton 11937. People can also sign up for the Red Devil Swim, a fund-raiser to be held on Sept. 2, over the Labor Day weekend, featuring a mile, half-mile, and quarter-mile swim, either competitively or for fun.

“I certainly hope we reach our $35,000 goal in the next week or so and have them up and running before hurricane season,” Mr. Calabrese said. “From a lifesaving perspective, I’m very excited about getting these AquaEyes in each truck and having our guards trained with them.”


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