Supplement Feature - February 2010
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Serve & Protect

Aquatic Safety & Staffing

By Richard Zowie

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act

Swimming can be a wildly popular activity for children, but caution has to be exercised. Parents might be quick to ensure their young children stay out of the deep ends of pools by confining them to wading pools or spas. Unfortunately, even in shallower pools children can still be at risk.

According to the CDC, every year nearly 300 children under the age of five drown in residential and public pools and spas. Thousands require emergency-room treatment or hospitalization, and those who don't die can experience brain damage or other permanent disabilities.

One problem is drain and suction entrapments. When drains have broken or when there are faulty or missing covers, items like hair, limbs, jewelry or clothing can become entrapped. The swimmer is then caught, unable to breathe, even in shallow water. Even evisceration is possible in some cases.

One tragic example is Virginia Graeme Baker.

In 2002, the 7-year-old girl was in a spa and became entrapped by the drain's powerful suction. It held Virginia under water as people struggled to free her. By the time they freed her, it was too late. Virginia died as she was rushed to the hospital.

To combat this, on Dec. 19, 2007 the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was signed into law. This law, which became effective in December 2008, has several purposes:

1. To enhance the safety of public and private pools and spas.
2. To encourage the use of layers of protection.
3. To reduce child drownings in pools and spas.
4. To reduce the number of suction entrapment incidents, injuries and deaths.
5. To educate the public on the importance of constant supervision of children in and around water.

Now that the bill is law, the current step is compliance and enforcement. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission currently works to implement and enforce the act. The commission encourages the use of layers of protection like fencing around pools, continual supervision and requiring anti-entrapment drain covers along with other safety devices.

How have swimming pools been doing so far? According to U.S. CPSC public affairs specialist Kathleen Reilly's presentation to the commission at the October 2009 World Aquatic Health Conference, the CPSC has inspected 700 pools and has found 80 percent to be compliant.

"I think you could say that it's definitely happening," Reilly said, regarding the facilities' move toward compliance. "More and more people are coming on board. It took a while for inventory in the beginning to be available."

Reilly feels that media coverage has helped to get implementation of the Baker Act going, since those with public swimming pools see the public is informed and demanding the pools to be safe.

"Our priority is to have all pools compliant, but particularly the kiddie and shallower pools," she added. "It's been predominantly a problem for children, but we wanted to make sure all pools were compliant."

Griffiths said in the public swimming pool inspections he does, he's very surprised by the number of compliant pools he's encountered. However, he believes the Baker Act should've been done in chronological progression, focused on fixing shallow pools first and then moving onto medium depth and then deep-water pools. He also believes the suction entrapment problem is one that's primarily a small pool problem.

"It would've been more practical and affordable to do spas, wading pools and shallow pools first," he added.

Reilly sees the passage of the Baker Act as something that helps to address a wrong and do what's possible to ensure it doesn't happen anymore. Losing a child from a drowning or other fatal injury due to drain entrapment is a tragedy no parent should have to face.

"It's a horrible, horrible event and even more horrible if you don't survive," she said. "The idea that you won't get out of there is terrifying."

Of the pools that aren't compliant, Reilly said it comes down to two issues: money and a worry of further government intrusion into people's lives.

For those concerned with money, the problem stems from pools needing major restructuring or retrofitting.

"It's an expensive proposition and I can understand people's concerns," Reilly said. "Most of the time it doesn't cost that much money. Pools need to be maintained and kept in good operational order."

Others, she added, don't want the government interfering with their lives and wrongly perceive this law as doing that. They might argue that their pool's already safe, or that their drain's in the deep end where nobody can get near it. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy before people finally decide to do something.

Reilly said her organization soon plans to launch a national education program about entrapment and drowning prevention.

"Supervision is crucial, since little children can disappear easily," she said. "Once they go into the water, you may never hear them again. Once they go down it can be over. They're not like adults, who can come up and scream for help."