MYRTLE BEACH — Fire Department officials have a new tool to help people struggling in the water but the new "robot lifeguards" won't be replacing their flesh-and-blood guards anytime soon.
The department is awaiting a shipment of four new EMILYs — an acronym for "emergency integrated lifesaving lanyard" — to arrive in May. The remote-controlled flotation device is designed to swim by itself to a person in distress and provide flotation until rescuers arrive. It also has a camera and two-way audio, so rescuers can communicate with the person in the water.
At 25 mph, the device is "faster than any swimmer I know," Lt. Jon Evans said.
The technology, made by Green Valley, Ariz.-based company Hydronalix, is not widespread among South Carolina beach communities. Sarah Reynolds, spokeswoman for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, said that none of the beaches patrolled by the county's lifeguards use them. Similarly, Hilton Head Island does not use the devices, said Mike Wagner of Shore Beach Services. His company is the contractor that patrols the island's beaches.
"I'm all for somebody like Myrtle Beach giving it a try, and maybe it's a great technology," Wagner said. "A lot of time, the technologies that come across tend to be extremely expensive, so I don't necessarily want to be the person testing it out and finding out it's not useful."
The devices being sent to Myrtle Beach total $52,000, but the cost has been covered by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, Evans said.
While EMILYs are starting to catch on in some coastal areas of the United States — Los Angeles County uses them, for example — the devices have also been tested in more perilous circumstances, said Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.
In 2016, CRASAR helped bring two of the devices, donated by the company that makes them, to officials from the Hellenic Coast Guard and Red Cross. They were used to rescue Syrian refugees who were trying cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Greece. Thousands of people perished in an attempt to make that crossing in 2016, according to the United Nation's refugee agency.
Murphy said the EMILY was helpful because it could tow a line out to swimmer in the water to pull them in to a rescue boat, away from dangerous situations where they might have been swept towards rocky outcroppings. EMILY's audio system let rescuers communicate with people in sinking vessels and its camera also enabled rescuers to see if refugees have hypothermia or other physical issues that would need to be addressed immediately.
The technology has not been recommended by the U.S. Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit association of lifeguards in the United States — one of the reasons Wagner said EMILY had not been adopted in Hilton Head.
Chris Brewster, of the USLA, questioned the usefulness of the device and said it depended on several factors to be successful. Someone on the shore has to be able to operate it effectively, the person in the water has to be conscious enough to grab it and then the person still needs to be brought to land.
"These are really not valuable from a lifeguard perspective, and the reason I say that is from a lifeguard perspective, your job is to get that person back to shore," Brewster said.
Carl Commenator, vice president of government affairs for Hydronalix, said the EMILY can still save valuable time by reaching a swimmer in rough water conditions far faster than a lifeguard might.
"I think it's obvious that a person would have to be conscious. I don’t know how many unconscious people lifeguards save on beaches,” Commenator said. "It’s not supposed to replace the lifeguard. I don’t know if that might be the association’s concern."
Evans said that each beach patrol in Myrtle Beach will be equipped with an EMILY, and that the devices might be most useful after lifeguards are off duty or in sections of the beach where there aren't many guard stands.
"For those non-swimmers, that's something they can deploy while the swimmer is getting ready to go out in the water," he said.