Beating the Invisible Shark: The Story of the Wahooo Swim Monitor System
Like most people, I had naively believed that because lifeguards were watching the water, my kids were safe.
Like any kid would during a hot sticky summer, my two children – a nine-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy – wanted to bike around the corner with their friends and go swimming at a park here in Redding, CT.
But the summer of 2006 was different from previous years: my wife was laid up in bed with a broken leg, and I was busy driving back and forth to NJ to visit my ailing mother. That meant neither of us could be there to watch our children swim. My wife was not at all comfortable with the notion of the kids going without us, but I was on the fence. The pond was guarded by several lifeguards, after all, and kids riding their bikes to the local swimming hole was a summertime right of passage.
After some discussion, we acquiesced. At my wife’s request though, I stopped by the park before leaving for NJ. I walked up to the sunny beach to the sounds of laughing and splashing. As expected, the lifeguards seemed to be everywhere. Everyone appeared to be having a great time, and so I called my wife to let her know that all was well. I got back in my car and continued on with my drive. I had no idea that my life would never be the same.
Later that day, in that pond, a nine-year-old boy nearly drowned. He was believed to be underwater for five minutes before his body was discovered. Five minutes.
This tragedy occurred despite several lifeguards and the addition of afternoon camp counselors watching the swimmers. Although the boy miraculously survived, he will have to deal with neurological impairment for the rest of his life.
This needless tragedy had an intense impact on the entire community. You have most likely heard the old saying, “There before the grace of God go I.” Well, this saying had a lot of meaning that day. It could have been any one of our children who went under that dark blanket, unnoticed and all alone. And of all days, the near drowning occurred the first time my wife and I let our children go swimming without us there to supervise. (Even now, I still get chills thinking about it.)
Like most people, I had naively believed that because lifeguards were watching the water, my kids were safe. I was terribly wrong. I scoured the internet for information and quickly learned that drowning in the U.S. – and the world — is in fact a silent and growing epidemic. Truth is, if the frequency of deaths and injuries from drowning were instead a result of bee stings or shark attacks, it would be headline news.
On average, 11 people drown in the U.S. every day. In eighteen states, drowning is the number one cause of unintentional death of children, exceeding automobile accidents. In the rest of the country, it is the second leading cause. In almost 90% of these incidents, there was supervision present. That means that in most instances, those drownings were needless and preventable. Had it been identified and supervisors notified in time, intervention would have most likely prevented that event from escalating into a fatality.
The problem is that detecting a drowning is extremely difficult. It happens in seconds, and often, silently– not at all the way it is usually depicted in movies and on TV. In fact, there are many misconceptions about drowning. For instance, swimming or athletic ability does not preclude one from the risk of drowning. Nor does one’s age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or education. Even with diligent, well-trained supervisors watching the water, drownings occur, and at alarming rates. The water can be clear or murky, shallow or deep. There can be one guard on duty, or ten. Simply put, drowning– like a hungry shark– doesn’t care who you are.
My mind began racing. I have always been passionate about technology and inventing solutions to address problems. Surely, I thought, there had to be a practical way to utilize technology to detect drowning. Research uncovered some drowning detection products out there, but they were cost-prohibitive and had limitations. Days and nights passed. I spent hours researching, contacting aquatic safety experts, and creating drawings to come up with a practical solution. Unbeknownst to me, a friend and neighbor, Tom Healy, along with another Reddingite, Paul Taylor, had been thinking along the same lines. Also impacted by the tragedy, the two had begun discussions about using technology to detect and prevent drowning.
As autumn approached, Tom called. He knew I enjoyed technology, and both of us shared a passion for entrepreneurial ideas. We met later that day and took turns revealing our ideas. Within a few days, along with Paul, we decided to form an alliance with the purpose of creating a practical, reliable and affordable solution to reduce the risk of preventable drowning. Within weeks, that alliance turned into Aquatic Safety Concepts, LLC. We were hooked; there was no turning back. Since that summer, ASC and its three founders have been on a challenging and undulating path of discovery. Enlisting the collective expertise of professionals from several disciplines, we envisioned, developed and patented the Wahooo® Swim Monitor System (SMS). A revolution in aquatics, the Wahooo SMS is the world’s first drowning detection technology that works in both clear-water pools and dark-water bodies like lakes and ponds. Also revolutionary is that the Wahooo SMS enables guards to quickly find submerged swimmers, even in dark, murky water.
It works on the simple premise that if a swimmer is submerged continuously for a dangerous period of time, guards need to know immediately so that they can intervene before the situation escalates into an emergency. The system requires that each swimmer wear a device, a “Swimband,” which can be worn as either a lightweight headband or as a simple goggle attachment. The Swimband determines the duration of facial submersion, (i.e. the swimmer is unable to breathe) and transmits a signal to the system if there is a risk of drowning.
While we acknowledge that wearing a Swimbandrequires a behavioral change, we often likenit to wearing a helmet during bicycling or skiing, but without the messy hair issues. That, and the fact that a person is 2.5 times more at risk of death while swimming than while riding a bicycle, or 12 times more likely to die while swimming than up on those cold slippery slopes.
Over the years, as we learned of more painful stories, witnessed chilling videos of actual drownings, and met with parents who have lost a child, we realized that this endeavor was more than just an opportunity to build a successful legacy company. It became clear that our path was truly about making a difference in people’s lives; to be part of something that would prevent tragedies from devastating families, facilities, and communities. How often in a lifetime is one afforded this opportunity?
My children are older now, and Wahooo has become part of our daily life. My daughter, nowfourteen, asks how the injection molding is going as casually as a child might ask what’s for dinner. Our kids have tolerated being photographed wearing prototype after prototype, and jumping into cold water when they’d much rather be doing something else. My patient wife has had to endure hours listening to me rant about technology or manufacturing hurdles. She has sat right next to me, riding the roller coaster that is starting a company. My friends have watched the roller coaster, too, cheering from afar or consoling me as needed.
Each of the co-founders has similar stories to tell. Exhilaration tempered by exhaustion. Momentum tempered by stagnation. Sacrifices made. The risk of capital and of reputation. Yet all of this has led us to where we now stand: we’ve just installed our first Wahooo SMS at the Wilton, CT Family Y 25 meter pool, with plans to install the system at their swimming pond and 50 meter pool as well. There are about 25 facilities that are making arrangements to have the system installed, and hundreds that have expressed serious interest.
Five years after that fateful summer day, we are finally making a real impact so that no parent, facility or community will need to face the anguish that is the result of a needless and preventable drowning.
To learn more about the Wahooo Swim Monitor System, please visit www.WahoooSMS.com.
Dave Cutler is an award-winning illustrator, author, inventor and serial entrepreneur.