(July 12, 2019) An Israeli start-up company is consulting with the Ocean City Beach Patrol to create its own higher-tech beach patrol system.
Working with Ben Gurion University, the company wants “to save lives and solve challenges facing lifeguard operators.” Israeli team member Minna Jacobson spoke with Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin to discuss the Ocean City system and the challenges they face.
Arbin emphasized that the biggest challenge is rip currents. Rip currents account for 90 percent of drownings on ocean beaches. They cannot be detected through thermal imaging and appear different on camera as opposed to the human eye.
Jacobson wants to create a system that alerts users to drownings, children alone in water, rip currents, and dangers specific to particular beaches.
“Any of the technology hasn’t really helped us because we have lifeguards with eyes on the water,” Arbin told Jacobson.
Lifeguards are trained to recognize the same signs an automated system would find — a rip tide, a person alone in the rip tide, a swimmer person making no progress toward the shore — and can react more quickly, Arbin said.
Arbin said any alert system call for a response would be too late, considering that an Ocean City lifeguard would already be in the water by the time a beach-bound monitor got the message.
“For 10 miles of beach, we’ll have 91 lifeguard stands,” Arbin said. “For those stands, we’ll have probably 120 people manning those stands.”
Jacobson mentioned that they were considering installing cameras for the warning system to focus on intervention now and prevention later. Arbin said that the cameras can only cover so much ground.
“As you move farther and farther away, it’s more difficult to get all the features,” Arbin told Jacobson.
He explained that the Israeli team would need a camera every 100 meters for full coverage, which can be expensive and invasive. Jacobson said other Israeli beach patrols she spoke with only have three lifeguards at a time and are distracted by beach visitor questions and other needs.
Arbin said that in the case of few or no lifeguards, an automated system would be useful.
“If we help you save a life, then it’s absolutely worth my time,” Arbin said.
Both Arbin and Public Education Coordinator Kristin Joson were concerned that the Israeli team was more focused on intervention than education.
“Education is the first part of our system,” Joson said.
They also noted that the system did not seem to be cost-effective in comparison to hiring and training lifeguards.
Arbin has helped about 10 other groups create or improve patrol systems, including Rio de Janeiro, St. Padre Island, Texas, and the U.S. Army during the Gulf War. The Ocean City Beach Patrol also helped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration develop a rip current alert system.
“It’s like a pat on the back that we’re seen as experts, not just locally but internationally,” Arbin said.
He added that most groups that he consults with are more focused on creating a product to market rather than providing education or prevention training. Nevertheless, Arbin is dedicated to the cause.
“If I can do anything to help save lives, that’s the motivation,” Arbin said.
He agreed to consult with Jacobson throughout the development process and to test their system once it is in place.