Feature Article - April 2008
Find a printable version here

Life Preservers

Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Aquatic Risk

By Hayli Morrison


The Technology Challenge

Water scanning is one area where more technology is needed. A 2001 lifeguard vigilance study conducted by Jeff Ellis and Associates identified how quickly lifeguards could spot an underwater swimmer who was in danger. The study, consisting of more than 500 tests at 90 U.S. pools and waterparks, found that it took lifeguards an average of one minute and 14 seconds to spot the test mannequin underwater. The results came in spite of the fact that all lifeguards were using the appropriate visual scanning techniques, according to video surveillance tapes. The groundbreaking study brought attention to the fact that, even when a lifeguard is performing as trained, the human eye is fallible.

Like lifeguards, pool service technicians are only human. They can only check the water's chlorination and filtration systems every so often and can't be there around the clock in case of emergency. Even in aquatics facilities where there is an around-the-clock supervisor, there needs to be a backup water filtration and chlorination system to fill in any gaps created by human error, according to Fruia.

"Just having the lifeguard test the water with a test kit every hour is no longer acceptable in today's aquatics industry," he said.

The issue of water sanitation is a particular problem in scenarios where there may not be an ever-present lifeguard or other supervisor on site to check the water levels.

One example is splash pads or spray parks, playgrounds with interactive water fountains that are often found in city parks. These often are designed for water runoff to drain back down into the original holding tank—along with any sunscreen, spit, sweat or other bodily secretions the water may pick up along the way. The problem lies in the holding tanks' filtration and chlorination systems, which are often insufficient or sometimes even non-existent.

In most cases, spray parks have no site supervisor present around the clock to check the water's sanitation levels. Upkeep duties are usually designated to city maintenance crews, whose many responsibilities usually allow them to stop by only a few times a day at best. The inadequacy of this system became painfully evident in 1999 and 2005, when disease outbreaks in two different U.S. cities were linked to spray parks.

In 1999, gastrointestinal illness was reported in nearly half the attendants at a new beachside park spray area in Florida. The symptoms included diarrhea, vomiting, fever and cramps. In 2005, a similar outbreak was seen in at least 1,300 visitors to a spray park in New York's Seneca Lake State Park. These and other outbreaks have state lawmakers and aquatics industry manufacturers working on new regulatory laws and better water sanitation equipment so that spray parks are a safe investment for any municipality.

The Legislative Challenge

With all types of aquatics facilities, the standards of sanitation vary. This is because pool codes vary from state to state, as they are determined and enforced at the local level. So states like Florida, Texas and California have very structured codes, while other states have virtually no regulatory structure whatsoever when it comes to aquatics facilities. Additionally, even in the states that have very comprehensive codes, there is a problem with enforcement. This is primarily due to an inadequate number of enforcement officials and the large workload they are given.

Ohio.

Even with lifeguard and facility audits offered by private companies, the specific task of testing water quality often falls through the cracks, according to Fruia.

"They're looking at whether the lifeguard on the stand is meeting the standard, whether the lifeguard is scanning, whether there are ring buoys and so on," he said. "They don't test the water quality or chlorine levels. Their only concern is whether the lifeguard can see the bottom of the pool, but they have no training as to why that water quality might be bad."

The companies serve a very legitimate purpose, Fruia and Wernicki agreed, but not every auditing company takes a fully comprehensive approach.

"I think they can work. I also think they can be overblown," Wernicki said. "I think at times you're just getting a snapshot of something and maybe not the whole picture."

While there is no federal oversight or enforcement when it comes to pool codes, the CDC is currently fine-tuning its Model Aquatic Health Code. The model will serve as a uniform guide for health departments and code enforcement officers at the local level across the United States. The endeavor is made possible through an initial grant from the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), and enlists the input of public health and aquatics industry representatives from around the country.