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A new simple, smart system warns deaf L.A. County beachgoers of dangers

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Workers with the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors install strobe lights on a building at Torrance Beach. The lights are part the new Beach Emergency Evacuation Lights System, or BEELS, designed to alert deaf and hard-of-hearing beachgoers to emergencies at the coast.
(Nicole Mooradian /Los Angeles County Department of Beaches)

Lightning struck Venice Beach in 2014, killing a 20-year-old swimmer and injuring more than a dozen others. Emergency responders sprang into action to get 20,000 people out of the water and off the sand.

When Randy Dean, safety officer for Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, considers this freak accident and other beach emergencies, he thinks of his two adult children, both hard of hearing, and everyone else with a hearing disability who might not immediately understand the danger.

“With my job, I just thought about them and said to myself, ‘I wonder if the deaf come to beaches often?’” Dean said.

He surveyed the local deaf community and the results were no surprise to him: Of course deaf people go to the beach, but many don’t feel comfortable about the possibility of being caught in an emergency.

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“It creates a lot of challenges if everybody is running and they don’t know why,” he said.

Dean’s next move was so obvious it’s astonishing no one thought of it sooner.

He devised the Beach Emergency Evacuation Lights System, or BEELS, a series of strobe lights to alert deaf and hard-of-hearing beachgoers to imminent danger.

“It’s a great system, and I’m glad they’re implementing it,’’ said Kenichi Haskett, lifeguard section chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department. “It’s a start for us to make mass notifications easier, especially if it’s a busy summer day.”

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Here’s how it works:

In an emergency — picture a flash thunderstorm, great white shark sighting, rip current or oil spill — lifeguards will activate strobe lights, which will be mounted to buildings such as bathrooms and lifeguard towers.

Torrance Beach, the pilot site, will kick things off in November with a ribbon cutting and day at the beach for the deaf community.

The rollout to all Los Angeles County beaches is expected within two years, pending budget approval. The first system cost $225,000 to implement.

When beaches have to close, lifeguards try to notify each person on the sand and in the water. “It’s time-consuming and labor intensive,” Haskett said.

BEELS will help them more quickly convey the immediacy of the danger, especially critical when the message needs to be relayed to anyone with a hearing impairment.

“Otherwise we would have to go out and try our best to communicate,” Haskett said.

BEELS also includes speakers with amplifiers that will deliver audible notifications in English and Spanish. Signs will be posted in beach parking lots, along access ways and in the sand to tell visitors how to decipher the lights: a fast strobe will indicate a full beach evacuation; slow will indicate a water-only evacuation.

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The system can deliver isolated (one beach) or widespread notifications (such as a tsunami warning).

A test run in September at Torrance Beach was encouraging. “You can see [the lights] from a quarter mile away,” Dean said.

He was concerned about the audible announcements given ambient noise, but they worked fine. “Just with the small speaker alone, a lot of people could hear the sound underwater while they were swimming,” Dean said.

Dean worked with multiple county agencies to design the system and, crucially, relied heavily on expertise from the deaf community.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are visually oriented and rely on lighting and vibrations,” said Patricia Hughes, chief executive of the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness Inc., which consulted with Dean’s team. “Beaches pose a challenge to (designing) emergency response systems due to the wide range of environments and weather conditions that can affect visibility,” she said in an email.

“When it comes to setting up a lighting systems like BEELS, sufficient brightness and contrast are important to make the light distinguishable from its environment.”

In August, the harbor department installed a Video Remote Interpreting system, or VRI, at the Marina del Rey visitors center to enable on-demand American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreting services using the internet. An instructor is being recruited to teach basic ASL to lifeguards.

“We hope that the BEELS and VRI project will serve as a model for the rest of the state and country to follow,” Hughes said.


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