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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 June, 2004, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Australia's lifeguards go hi-tech
By Carmen Roberts
BBC ClickOnline on the Gold Coast, Australia

Lifeguards down under are turning to technology to make beaches safer.

Life guards in Australia
Seconds count when it comes to saving a life
They are using a computer surveillance system to monitor Australia's beaches in an attempt to reduce deaths by drowning.

"Surf life savers work in an operational environment where seconds count, so having a good communications system that can capture data quickly is vitally important. It will and can save lives," said Peter Dawes of Surf Life Saving.

The nerve centre of SurfCom might look like an ordinary beach shack, but it is home to a communication system that is revolutionising surf life-saving.

On location, on time

SurfCom is the Gold Coast emergency communications centre for life-savers in Queensland.

It is a purpose-built, fully integrated radio, telecommunications and computer network for the beach.

Surfcom hut
They're so advanced in what they're doing, they're actually customising software to suit their own needs
Peter Dawes, Surf Life Saving
The alarm can be triggered by a member of the public on the beach or by simply phoning-in.

The call can then be tracked on the SurfCom system.

"The simplicity of it is that the operator pushes the button and that sends the signal through our radio network and the information pops up as an icon on our map," said Mark Parsons of Zetron Australasia, which provided the technology.

"The operators here can then send information to people out there on location at the time."

Jet boat teams are then dispatched and the rescue is co-ordinated and tracked using global positioning systems.

Beach cameras can zero in on trouble spots while an emergency services helicopter provides aerial surveillance and support.

It is the only dedicated surf and beach surveillance and communications network in Australia, driven by a unique software system that was in fact custom-built and designed by volunteer surf life-savers.

"In many ways these are different surf life-savers than many are used to seeing," said Mr Dawes

"They're indoors, they're operating computers in an indoor environment, and they're so advanced in what they're doing, they're actually customising software to suit their own needs."

Watching you

SurfCom was introduced after a record number of tourist drownings in 2002.

Surf station
Stations on the beach communicate to the SurfCom network
During the first five months of operation last year, SurfCom received around 1,000 calls per day and over 120 beach emergencies were coordinated.

"We're also looking at SMS-type activities that members of the public can provide information to these centres on a national basis and actually provide information out to our services," said Mr Parsons.

In addition to SMS, SurfCom will also be upgrading its surf safety camera system. There are currently two analogue cameras in operation on the Gold Coast.

By late next year there will be four digital cameras in place, and this is just the start of a nationwide roll-out.

Beach cameras attract a good deal of controversy. SurfCom says the cameras are part of a bigger picture, to help monitor swimmers on un-patrolled beaches or where surf rescue resources are thin on the ground.

Lives saved

Statistics show there has been a significant drop in drownings. Last summer there were only six on record, a big drop from an average of 14.

There are other benefits, too. Under the old system, rescue data was analysed only at year end. The new system records it instantly, letting life savers take a proactive, rather than reactive approach.

"The idea is that we will progressively roll out the IP cameras and we will have a wireless solution that will not only run our cameras but also PDA devices and also portable internet access for our services throughout the coast area," said Mr Parsons.

Australia has long been looked to as a leader in lifeguard innovation. Now many overseas lifeguard services in the UK and Asia are considering adopting the Australian technology.

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