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Thrills & Spills

Risk Management for Waterparks & Splash Parks

By Deborah L. Vence

Millions of people a year visit waterparks to experience the thrill of plunging down a steep waterslide, to try out the latest water movements at a splash play area or just to hang out in the lazy river and soak up the sun.

In fact, more than 1,000 commercial and municipal waterparks exist in the United States today. And, more than 80 million people visit U.S. waterparks every year, according to information from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA).

So, with that many people in attendance each year, keeping the water safe is a major responsibility.

"Waterpark safety issues range from water-borne illness concerns to aquatic safety and lifeguarding/slide dispatch processes, clear water quality, proper and relevant signage, clear, concise safety communication (especially as it relates to slide dispatch) as well as non-water-related issues (foodborne illness, infrastructure and physical plant deficiencies, security, etc.)," said Mike Friscia, president of Innovative Attraction Management LLC, a Windermere, Fla.-based turnkey attraction management and aquatic risk prevention company.

Keeping Water Safe

With water being the main attraction and vehicle for waterparks and splash park areas, ensuring safety is crucial.

"There are obvious ways to achieve this objective. Specifically, utilize a water sanitation system that incorporates automation, innovation and technology. Unfortunately, investing in mechanical systems is sometimes minimized for facilities as cost and expense dollars are scarce," Friscia said.

With safe, clean, clear water being the No. 1 priority, having the ability to automate how water is sanitized minimizes the risk for water-borne illnesses, whether the system uses chlorine, bromine or some other system. In addition, many entities are mandating secondary sanitation on bodies of water, especially in areas frequented by children.

"A strong chemical control system, proper checks and balances from a maintenance perspective, and high-functioning filtration equipment saves both money and time on the front end, and allows for the safest aquatic environment for guests, patrons and employees," Friscia said.

Franceen Gonzales, a National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) board member and executive vice president of business development for a Canadian-based company that designs and manufactures attractions for the waterpark and amusement industries, said, "Whatever form water play comes in, it should be encouraged without too many rules so kids can innovate and exercise creativity. Yet, we still want them to be safe.

"Some high-priority safety considerations that can be implemented without impacting the fun of water play," she noted, include the following: "Running can cause trips and falls, resulting in injury. Every effort should be made to prevent running. Shooting water at close range to the face or sensitive parts of the body is not OK."

Meanwhile, the goal of the American Red Cross is for "everyone to have a fun and safe visit when they go to a waterpark or splash play area," said Nichole Steffens, national aquatic product manager for the American Red Cross.

Some important steps to help make that happen, she noted, include the following suggestions for those who patronize aquatic facilities:

  • Designate a water watcher to actively supervise young children; keep young children and non-swimmers within an arms-reach at all times. A child can drown wherever there's water (even in a bathtub or bucket of water) so parents and caregivers must be vigilant—even at a splash play area. Don't let your guard down just because the water is extremely shallow.
  • Shower with soap before entering the water or splash play area to help prevent the spread of recreational water illnesses (RWIs), which, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), are caused by germs and chemicals found in the water we swim in. They are spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, waterparks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers or oceans.
  • Take frequent bathroom breaks and change diapers in the bathroom or designated changing area (away from the water) to help prevent the spread of RWIs. If someone has diarrhea, they should not swim or play in the splash play area.
  • Always protect yourself and your family from the sun by using layers of protection including sunscreen (with at least SPF 30), limiting sun exposure when the sun is the strongest (take a break from the sun by going indoors, under an umbrella or in a shady area) and wear hats and protective clothing.

Information from the CDC website revealed that with splash play areas becoming more common, people might not realize that although there is no standing water, the spray water will rinse any contaminants (such as diarrhea, vomit or dirt) down into the water holding area and be sprayed again. The water is recycled through the system. And, as a result, it is possible for the water to become contaminated and make people sick.

So, as with swimming pools, splash play areas need just as much attention. Waterpark operators need to be diligent about ensuring that recirculated water is safe and should maintain proper chlorine levels.

Risk Management

Waterpark operators need to make sure they have risk management practices in place in order to reduce injuries or accidents.

Ensuring that your slides and attractions are maintained and operated in a safe manner every operating hour is critical and takes commitment.

At opening and closing, facilities should employ "… a daily checklist for ops and maintenance where potential safety issues are identified and immediately corrected (or the attraction is not operated until the issue is resolved)," Friscia said. "Maintaining proper water level and flow per manufacturer specification (and having the daily mechanisms to monitor) is an area that gets lost sometimes as facilities mature. Commit to a preventive maintenance program and an annual infrastructure reinvestment plan (including mechanical room automation and innovation upgrades)."

Also, he said, develop and implement daily, monthly and annual processes to cover each critical aspect: guest areas (attractions, pools, slides, towers), daily mechanical and maintenance, preventive maintenance and a re-investment plan.

Gonzales said that when it comes to risk management practices, there is a philosophy that less is more.

"Less rules means pool operators can focus on those high-priority safety items rather than a laundry list of items that all start with 'NO.' It's about enforcement," she said.

She's learned over time, too, that the fewer inputs, the better the outcome.

"Today, there's a whole lot that's coming at you: e-mail, Facebook, home life, work life, and there is a lot of input," she said. "Less is more. What are the most important rules that I need to enforce? Whittle that down to five. Enforce those five."

In addition, "Operators of pools should invest in good management practices by enforcing pragmatic rules in a constructive way. This way kids still have fun and learn to respect themselves and others," she added.

For example, when Gonzales worked for Great Wolf Resorts between 2006 and 2013, overseeing 13 waterparks and overall resort safety and maintenance and engineering, she said one thing that was done was to ensure that the executives were endorsing safety.

"It was fundamental to our program, getting the C-suite into the room," she said. "Get your general manager and key manager and talk about safety or talk with CFOs, CEOs and talk about safety, alignment of what and how they see safety. Once you get that, everything is easy. There's no opposition. That really helped us, to feel really empowered.

"When we first launched our safety department and programs we got executive buy-in by doing a series of facilitated sessions with our C-suite, so they were on the same page from our safety priority, not just in what we said but in what we did, financial commitment to safety, approach in dealing with incidents that occurred at the resorts, and in the consistent internal and external messaging related to safety," she explained.

Many programs were implemented that really made a difference.

"Near the end of my time there, we launched a culture campaign to deliver our message of safety internally. It was called S.A.F.E. (Safety Always For Everyone). We had video of our executives in casual settings where they talked about what safety meant to them," she said.

Also, Gonzales said, a roadshow was done to all of the resorts with education sessions, internal marketing collateral and swag to help deliver the message.

"We wanted our team to see that they are each important in the big picture of the company and in the everyday interactions as 'pack members' (employees) with our guests to keep Great Wolf S.A.F.E. Our general managers also kept safety top of mind and they were directly measured on safety," she said, "not just on guest service scores and financial performance. Safety was one of the pillars of performance for Great Wolf."

What's more, it's important to understand how people behave.

"Sometimes we go and look at, these are the rules that everybody else uses," Gonzales said, and it's important to take into account "… your own unique environment, behavior of guests—understanding the unique nature of a unique facility," adding that it's also important to prioritize.

"Sometimes people take care of common risks, but don't prioritize risk. Let's go through each property, for what their biggest risks are," she added. "It is [about] understanding your business, understanding behaviors and understanding your unique risk, so you are not doing everything."

In another example, at Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., certified pool operators test the water four times a day.

"If any test reading (that might be a reading outside of the normal levels we operate at) requires shutdown, we will close the pool or spa and make corrections and open the pool or spa back up," said Kimberly Koyle, waterpark maintenance manager at Kalahari and NSPF instructor.

Along with testing water readings, the staff documents equipment readings, such as the chemical controller readings (making sure probes are reading correctly), filter readings, flow rate readings and UV (ultraviolet light) unit dosage readings, just to name a few, in order to make sure all equipment is working properly.

Koyle also said the resort uses documents to report AFRs (Accidental Fecal Releases).

"We follow CDC guidelines and we fill out the document on our state of Wisconsin form for AFRs. The pool or spa is shut down immediately when an AFR is noticed. We use the CT value on the closure time after the AFR is cleaned up," she said. "If it's diarrhea, we will up the chlorine to 20ppm and keep the pool or spa closed for 12.75 hours."

Also, "We will make sure to keep the attraction and if the pool has slides pumps running throughout the whole required CT value time. This is important to relay to other parks. The circulation pumps always run 24/7, and if the pool also has any feature or slide pumps, we will make sure those stay on for the full 12.75 hours," she said. "Throughout the 12.75 hours we will check the pool/spa chemicals to make sure we are maintaining the 20ppm and the pH has to be at a 7.5 or below."

Pools are vacuumed, too, which enables you to clean under the skimmer lids, clean the skimmer housings, skimmer baskets and tiles on a daily basis.

"We operate at the proper chlorine, combine chlorine and pH levels required by the state of Wisconsin. Operating at the proper levels eliminates the risk from some waterborne illnesses," she noted.

Kalahari Resorts also follows CDC guidelines on AFRs, and has signs at the children's pools, stating that children need to wear swim diapers. Equally important is the training of staff with lifeguards, operations supervisors and maintenance on AFRs, and cleaning of tiles and pool equipment.

Lifeguarding Trends

The job of ensuring water safety also falls, in part, on the shoulders of lifeguards who are charged with the task of closely supervising swimming pools and splash play areas at waterparks.

Steffens, who provides program support and product development for the Red Cross swimming and water safety programs including Lifeguarding, Learn-to-Swim, Safety Training for Swim Coaches and Small Craft Safety, noted that in 2015, the American Red Cross released its Aquatic Attraction Lifeguarding course in order to provide the industry with an entry-level training program for those working in areas with water depths of 3 feet or less.

  • Aquatic Attraction Lifeguards are trained to help prevent and respond to emergencies at facilities with aquatic attractions (waterparks, play areas, slides, lazy rivers, etc.) in water up to 3 feet deep.
  • Aquatic Attraction Lifeguards are also trained in First Aid and CPR/AED for Professional Rescuers (at the same level as Lifeguards who are trained to guard deep water).
  • While Aquatic Attraction Lifeguards do not perform water rescues in water deeper than 3 feet, they are also trained to assist lifeguards with extrication (removing a drowning person) from deep water.

Friscia added that facilities are looking at ways to be more efficient while maintaining strict safety standards.

"The infusion of innovation in some areas," he said, "has been positively received since it's been stagnated and neglected for years."

The introduction of training that focuses on slide operations over the past few years has had an impact and is extremely important.

"A large percentage of injuries in an aquatic environment occur because of operator error on slides and attractions vs. other aquatic areas," Friscia said. "Dispatch training (initial and continual), technology and operational planning needs to happen at every facility regardless of size and scope."

The mandate of lifejacket usage in areas such as wave pools and lazy/action rivers for specific height limits is a trend that continues to grow.

"Seeing other industries [that] have traditionally not had lifeguards now utilizing trained staff to provide lifeguard services will have a big impact on aquatic safety for those organizations and industries overall," he said.

"Hopefully," he added, "the awareness of the importance of employing differing layers of aquatic safety will continue to grow throughout the aquatic world."



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