August 18, 2015

The New York Times, by Jennifer Jolly

On a hot summer afternoon in July, my friend’s 8-year-old son Cody nearly drowned in a backyard swimming pool. There were two moms supervising and only one other family in the water. It was quiet and calm, and those watching him thought he was just trying to see how long he could hold his breath. When they realized it wasn’t a game and pulled him out, he was unconscious and his lips were blue. Both moms started CPR and the child was coughing up blood by the time the paramedics arrived less than 10 minutes later.

“It was the worst day of my life,” his mother Danielle Paskins said, remembering those terrifying moments that unfolded just a few weeks ago. “And then the best day, because he lived.”

Today, Cody is as healthy as could be, but in the six weeks since his close call, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 530 people have drowned in the United States —  and, statistically, more than 100 of them have been children under the age of 14. In many cases, a lifeguard or supervisor was nearby.

The statistics point to a need that technology companies are looking to address as they enter the swim safety market.  One new wrist-worn safety gadget called Kingii has recently taken crowdfunding site Indiegogo by storm, raising more than $600,000 to date.

“When you drive a car, you put your seatbelt on. When you ride a bike, you put on a helmet. But how do you protect yourself in the water?” asked Tom Agapiades, inventor of the Kingii (pronounced KIN-jee).  “No one swims around with a lifejacket on, and that’s when they get in trouble.”

For Mr. Agapiades, inventing Kingii was personal. Four years ago, he was swimming at a lake near his Northern California home when his 24-year old friend was stung by a bee, had an allergic reaction and drowned before anyone could reach him.

Motivated by the helpless feeling of that tragic day, Mr. Agapiades, a former insurance salesman, set out to create a subtle wearable that works like an underwater airbag. The result looks like something out of a James Bond movie. The Kingii is essentially a large cuff-like bracelet adorned with a rectangular pouch and a small capsule of carbon dioxide. It weighs less than five ounces and is about the size of a smartphone, covering about half of the forearm. If the wearer gets into trouble in the water, he or she tugs on the bracelet, triggering the CO2 cartridge to inflate an orange flotation device that lifts them to the surface in a matter of seconds.

Mr. Agapiades said the Kingii can hoist a person weighing as much as 275 pounds and keep them safely near the water’s surface for as long as they need it. After the drowning danger has passed, the wearer can use the built-in whistle and compass to navigate and get the attention of nearby swimmers or rescuers, if needed.

I was skeptical when I first took it out of the box and set it up on my wrist to test it during a recent vacation. The device seemed big and felt awkward when I first jumped the water. But after a few minutes of paddling around, I barely felt it. I wore it off and on while wake-boarding, jet-skiing and even swimming in open water for exercise.

When I lifted the lever, the airbag shot out just as advertised and pulled me straight to the surface, where I had to kind of wrestle it into position in front of me to keep my head above the waves. Once in that position, it provided more than enough buoyancy to keep me afloat.

Swimming to safety once it is inflated is another skill altogether. I ended up taking it off my wrist and using it more like a kickboard. It should come with a tether so that once the user is safely afloat, they can more easily get themselves to safety while staying attached to it in rough waves. If you buy it, be sure to practice with it to figure these nuances out for yourself before relying on it to save your life.

The starter package retails for $79 and includes the inflatable and two CO2 capsules — one for practice and one for a real emergency. It was relatively easy to repack the inflatable, but I had to contact the company for instructions on how to do it.

A few years ago, while training for a triathlon, my friend Tom experienced severe cramping in both legs while still a quarter mile out in the San Francisco Bay. I was just an arm’s length away when it happened, and was able to help him get to shore. Had I not been there, a device like the Kingii could have saved his life.

The main downside of the Kingii is that a person has to be conscious in order to use it. Other wearables, aimed primarily at protecting children and new swimmers, address this problem by sounding alarms when the swimmer stays underwater for too long.

The iSwimband, which sells for $40, is a wireless sensor that can be worn as a headband or wristband and pairs with a smartphone companion app. Depending on your customized preferences, the device can sound an alarm when a toddler comes into contact with water or when a new swimmer stays submerged for too long. It acts as an extra set of eyes for watchful parents and a safety net for toddlers and pre-teens who aren’t quite expert swimmers yet.

SEAL SwimSafe is another swim monitor with even more granular settings, with five options ranging from nonswimmer all the way up to “Guard Level.” You don’t need a smartphone to use this one, as it works with a standalone hub that sounds an alarm and flashes lights if someone takes an unexpected dip or stays under the surface past the set amount of time. The device, expected to be available through retailers this fall, will sell for about $400 for the hub, charger and band.

But could any of these devices helped young Cody? I’m not sure and neither is his mother, who turned down my offer to test the Kingii device with her son. Mrs. Paskins doesn’t want a gadget to give him a false sense of security in the water and is opting for a full regime of swim and water safety lessons instead.

Mr. Agapiades agrees that skill and supervision are the first line of defense against mishaps in the water. However, he also insists that doing nothing to change troubling drowning statistics isn’t an acceptable approach either.

If Kingii could even help save a fraction of the estimated 372,000 drowning deaths per year, Mr. Agapiades noted, “it would be a success.”