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New emergency system aims to help make beaches accessible to deaf visitors

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Randy Dean’s passion project started three years ago out of a beat-up plastic suitcase.

A strobe light screwed into a case, a 6-volt battery, a switch and Dean’s desire to help the deaf and hard of hearing evolved into the Beach Emergency Evacuation Lights System.

On Friday, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbor launched a BEELS pilot program at Torrance Beach.

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County officials equipped two buildings and lifeguard towers with nine loudspeakers and 48 strobe lights. The system relays audible warnings in English and Spanish, accompanied by flashing LED strobe lights that can be seen up to half a mile away. Readings for the speakers are up to 109 decibels.

BEELS is the first of its kind. In the event of an emergency — such as a tsunami, rip current or shark sighting — lifeguards will activate the system. Warnings can be for just one beach or activated widespread, and signs posted in the beach parking lot will help visitors decipher the strobes: a fast strobe is a signal for full evacuation, and a slow strobe is for a water-only evacuation. The design mimics fire alarms and doorbells with strobe lights, similarly to those seen in hotels. Los Angeles County lifeguards are also being taught basic American Sign Language.

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Gary Jones, director of the county Beaches and Harbor Department, said its mission is to improve accessibility to California’s iconic coastlines.

“Our beaches are open seven days a week, 365 days a year, but none of that matters if people can’t come,” Jones said.

The vision for BEELS, Dean said, is to help increase accessibility to beaches for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

“We wanted to make sure we brought technology to a greater level at our beaches and give everyone the same accessibility to respond to emergency evacuations at the same time,” he said.

Renee Thomas, director of human services for the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, said the agency’s collaboration with Dean was effortless.

“When BEELS contacted us [about setting up] this project to make beaches more accessible, we thought it was a fantastic idea,” Thomas said. “We wanted to start right away.”

Thomas’ agency, several county agencies and the city of Torrance worked together to pull the project together.

Maria Bird, lifeguard division chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said she envisions BEELS as instrumental in helping lifeguards evacuate beaches during critical situations.

BEELS will start as a one-year pilot program at Torrance Beach before expanding to other coastal areas in Los Angeles County. But Thomas said the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness is hopeful that the project will serve as a model for beaches across California and even nationwide.

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The project cost at Torrance Beach was about $225,000. Pending budget approval, systems could begin to be installed across all 20 Los Angeles County beaches within the next two years.

In August, a Video Remote Interpreting system was installed at the Marina del Rey visitors center, enabling on-demand ASL interpreting services. BEELS is the next move by the Beaches and Harbor Department to improve accessibility.

Dean, a safety operator for the Harbor Department, said the inspiration for the concept came from his two children, Ashli and Steven, who are both hard of hearing. He said he hopes BEELS will become the norm at all beaches, lakes and other public recreation areas.

“I’m very excited about not only what we’ve been able to accomplish but where we’re going to take this,” he said.

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