Sony Ipela "Virtual Lifeguard" Keeps Watch On

The task of monitoring and maintaining the safety of swimmers along Laguna and Newport Beach on the California coast is now aided by a wireless deployment of Sony IPELA® SNC-RZ25N network cameras.

The innovative adaptation of IP-based security technology is key in the off season, when it serves as a force multiplier for the beaches’ limited lifeguard staff – giving them a better chance to respond quickly and appropriately to emergency situations.

According to said Eric Bauer, lifeguard battalion chief for the Newport Beach Fire Department, “The arrival of the Sony wireless cameras mark a milestone in this profession. They have become essential tools for us, making us better at what we do and, providing greater service to the public at less cost to the taxpayer than other methods."

Bauer observed that over his 30-year career, very few innovations have attained this status. These innovations include the signature equipment of modern lifeguard professionals such as four-wheel drive trucks, rescue boats and improved lifeguard buoys.

Cutting Critical Response Time

In the busy season, Bauer manages a staff of more than 200 lifeguards covering 36 watchtowers, seven mobile patrols and three rescue boats. In the off-season from November to February, staffing drops down to a skeleton crew working with only a single mobile patrol. This means that the response to the 5,000 calls for rescue that occur annually differ depending on the season.

With a full staff on duty, guards in watchtowers can immediately judge the urgency of a situation and call for help if needed. But in the off-season, such on-location assessment has been absent. Instead, first responders have had to arrive on scene to determine whether additional support is required. This can add significantly to response time for critical care in life-and-death situations.

“Virtual Lifeguard” Concept Realized with Wireless IP

According to Bauer, the “Virtual Lifeguard,” using Sony IPELA IP-based cameras with their protocols and open standards, followed previous experiments with proprietary solutions. In 2001, he said he began experimenting with analog microwave-based systems delivering images to the headquarters and dispatch center. But arriving at a practical solution with this technology, and taking into account budgetary constraints, Bauer admitted, proved elusive. The potential for surveillance cameras to provide this instant assessment was obvious at the outset, he said. What was not clear was how to achieve this in a cost-effective manner. According to Bauer, total costs for a basic implementation of this technology were projected to top $500,000. In addition, he said that the equipment had significant maintenance issues when exposed to the harsh conditions created by sand and salt-water corrosion.

In 2005, Bauer said he was approached by David Mitchell, president of PRO 911 Systems, which provide advanced communications support to public safety agencies, with an unusual proposition. Mitchell’s company was helping implement high-speed wireless Internet access across Laguna Beach by creating a Tropos MetroMesh™ subscriber network. If PRO 911 Systems could use some of Bauer’s facilities to install the network, according to Mitchell, they could have access to the available bandwidth at cost. Mitchell suggested that this network could be used with Sony SNC-RZ25N network cameras to deliver an elegant and effective solution, where the initial analog microwave experiment had been awkward and expensive.

“The RZ25N unit’s MPEG-4 capabilities and bandwidth management tools are a perfect match for the Tropos network,” Mitchell said. “We are able to get optimum performance in frame rates and resolution without overloading the network. With this, we are able to turn the ‘Virtual Lifeguard’ concept into a practical solution because it only costs approximately one-third of what the proprietary analog system would have been.”

The initial test of the IPELA system was completed last fall. The first 10 cameras were deployed to assist through the off season this winter.

In addition to delivering visual information back to the command center, Bauer said that patrol teams will also have access through laptops in patrol vehicles.

He imagines that, before long, cameras will be on duty all along the beach and become a regular part of the scenery much as watchtowers are.

“We have limited resources in the off-season and cannot justify hiring additional staff,” Bauer said. “But the Sony cameras give us a cost-effective way to amplify our forces to cut response times. That means lives can and will be saved by this crucial innovation.”