Safe In (and Out of) the Water
Aquatic Facility Safety From Design Through Operation
First, the good news: The CDC reports that drowning deaths in children ages 0 to 17 declined 38% from 1999 to 2019. But they also tell us that in the United States there are still nearly 4,000 unintentional drowning deaths annually. More children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects, and for children ages 1 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of death after motor vehicle crashes. And for every child who dies from drowning, another eight receive emergency department care for non-fatal drowning, which can result in long-term health problems.
While drowning prevention is the main safety concern for pool operators, they also have other considerations including slip & fall injuries, pool ride and amenity safety, maintaining good water and air quality and keeping support areas safe.
Design for Safety
Aquatic Design Group (ADG) is a planning, design and consulting firm in the aquatics industry, and their team suggested some things to be considered in the design phase with regard to safety concerns. "Non-slip surfaces and proper drainage are crucial design elements for use in a consistently wet environment," said ADG President Dennis Berkshire. "Avoiding standing water to prevent mold, mildew and biofilm growth that can contaminate the pool water is important."
"In pool design, recreational pools and shallow water for lap pools are placed near locker room exits or the entry area of the pool," said Michelle Gable, principal at ADG, pointing out that this can help a weak swimmer avoid deep water and it's less intimidating upon entering the facility. "Outside lanes in a lap pool are designed to be wider than inside lanes due to … the potential for swimmers to accidentally intersect with rail goods or the pool walls," she added. "Underwater camera and deck camera systems are increasingly popular elements woven into aquatic facility design to support the efforts of lifeguards. Their use can increase safety, reduce staffing and decrease annual operating costs."
"The finishes of walls, lockers, sinks, countertops and other touch points should be non-abrasive so as not to injure patrons who may rub up against them and to allow them to be more easily cleaned," said ADG CEO Justin Caron. He also explained that when designing a natatorium, strategic HVAC and dehumidification systems and supplemental or secondary disinfection equipment improve both air and water quality, proving especially important in a COVID-19 world.
"Automation is becoming more common and allows both air handling systems and water quality systems to ramp up and down as needed to react to ever-changing situations instantly," Caron added. "Variable speed control circulation pumps allow circulation systems to be ramped up during high-load conditions and slowed down in off-peak conditions."
When designing a sprayground, Gable said that care is taken to ensure toddlers don't wander into the deep end of a nearby pool or traffic in a parking lot. "The use of strategic sprayground placement and/or fencing makes spraygrounds much safer for the ever-curious and fast-moving toddler. Safety surfacing to help with fall attenuation and minimize injuries has become an increasingly popular design element."
Caron added that the layout of the sprayground should create different age-appropriate zones to help provide a safer experience for all users without compromising fun or exploration.
Shawn DeRosa is the founder of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, an education and training company specializing in aquatic safety and risk management, and he believes many items in the planning-and-design phase can help mitigate safety issues during operations. He mentioned natatorium windows as one concern, and explained how architects examine the sun's path to attempt to align windows to minimize glare, as well as recommending window glazing or shades, but despite their best efforts, windows can still cause significant glare on the water surface. "Thus, even if recommendations for lifeguard stations were made pre-construction, it would be wise to conduct zone validation testing after water is in the pool and well before the facility opens for use.
"Other items that can be addressed in the design phase relating to safety include maintaining sufficient deck space to allow for traffic flow and emergency extrication from the water; proper depth markings and 'No Diving' tiles; emergency egress; location of chemical storage; ventilation of chemical storage areas; and means of securing the facility when closed to prevent unauthorized access," said DeRosa.
Inspect & Assess
One service DeRosa offers is facility inspections, and he said that a reputable inspector will not only benchmark against the applicable state code, but will also provide insight as to whether the facility is meeting the standards set forth in the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), the American National Standard for Public Swimming Pools and other applicable codes and standards. "This review may confirm areas where the facility meets or exceeds industry standard, while also identifying gaps between facility operations and industry best practices."
DeRosa has been a lifeguard, instructor trainer, pool operator and safety officer, and he pointed out that inspectors familiar with lifeguarding standards and facility operations may "look beyond the codes and consider how specific practices in place at a facility could be adjusted to minimize risks and improve safety."
Aquatic Safety Research Group (ASRG) also provides water safety and risk management programs and services, and they offer onsite evaluations and safety audits. "Many of the facilities we inspect won't be renovated in the near future," said Founder Tom Griffiths, "so we try to make their facility safer and more enjoyable by adding climbing walls to replace three-meter diving boards, marking the pool deck more clearly for depth changes, adding lifelines to have safer shallow-water areas and intermediate depths up to five feet."
Griffiths recommends incorporating creative signage using warning shapes, warning colors and warning symbols to be effective. "When pools are being renovated, we encourage lots of shallow-water areas and discourage deep water unless needed for specific aquatic activities. Also, we try to have visual obstructions eliminated."
ADG often performs needs assessments, where they visit sites to analyze facility components and design to determine opportunities for updates and renovations. Gable said that bringing facilities into compliance with current codes and standards is often a goal, as is addressing maintenance and operations conditions. "In renovations, we often find clients wanting to upgrade their chemical systems from situations of hand-pouring chemicals to mini bulk systems with third-party chemical deliveries, allowing their staff to handle chemicals less often. Many clients are also moving toward sophisticated chemical control monitors with advanced safety features and remote-monitoring capabilities."
She went on to explain that when upgrading, it's important to ensure that the chemical feed systems are interlocked with the pool circulation system and installed with flow sensors to ensure chemicals are only fed when the circulation system is activated and operating properly. "The CDC has noted numerous chemical exposures when these conditions are not achieved, and some have resulted in staff and patron hospitalization."
Advancements in chemical and filtration automation have made significant improvements in water quality at outdoor facilities and both water and air quality indoors, according to Gable, as has secondary disinfection equipment such as ultraviolet, AOP and ozone systems. "The ability of these systems to eliminate chloramines and common recreational water illnesses (RWIs) has been huge for the health and wellness of swimmers."
Additionally, "Shade is also being added to outdoor pools for the comfort and safety of patrons and staff, and pool and deck surfaces are frequently being renovated with safety in mind ," she said.
Pool and deck surfaces are certainly a critical safety consideration, and Briana Massie, marketing manager for a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of aquatic safety surfacing, explained that the top surfacing-related pain point that aquatic facilities face is slip-and-fall injuries. "Surfacing can also help reduce drowning risks since a slippery pool edge can cause patrons not intending to swim to slip into the pool. This is especially important for the visually impaired and blind community."
She explained how different tile textures can be combined to tactically signal if a pool edge is present. "Pool edges can also be a different color to visually signal that water depth is present."
Massie pointed out that for decades there weren't a lot of surfacing options, so facilities often defaulted to concrete or ceramic tiles despite their inherent slipperiness and abrasive properties. In addition to new builds, her company's tiles can be retrofitted over existing surfaces. The tiles are the first safety surfacing product to be certified by NSF/ANSI/CAN 50, according to Massie, fulfilling six performance-based requirements: slip resistance, impact attenuation, impermeability, cleanability, chemical resistance, and UV resistance.
Impermeability is important because hazardous materials such as fertilizer runoff from nearby lawns, chemicals or human byproducts won't absorb into the tiles, according to Massie. "This makes sanitization more effective and safer; our tiles experience a 99.9% reduction of bacteria after being sanitized, including the joints of tiles, in accordance with the MAHC. Chemical resistance is important because facilities use chemicals such as chlorine."
She explained that their cutting process allows them to cut nearly anything out of their surfaces, such as depth markers and safety messaging (for instance, No Diving). "Our tiles being chemical-resistant means that safety messaging stays in high contrast, and that our tiles' slip-resistance and impact absorption properties won't be compromised."
Landing pads, commonly used at the bottom of slides at the exit point, are another consideration. "They ensure a softer landing and don't use bolts, so feet won't be cut," said Massie. "They're thicker than our normal tiles that are commonly used for splash pads and pool decks and have higher impact absorption as a result. They can also be used under multilevel play structures or diving boards where fall height is a concern. By surfacing splash pads with (our floors), this can help reduce the risks associated with not having a lifeguard present."
Speaking of Lifeguards…
Lifeguards are of course on the front lines of safety, and program audits—in-depth looks at facility policies, procedures and practices—can help identify areas where lifeguard performance can be improved. DeRosa highly recommends these every five years, and explained that they're often combined with a staff observational audit, which typically involves an unannounced observation of lifeguards, slide attendants, facility supervisors and other staff. "Lifeguard skills and scenario performance for a select number of staff will be assessed. Items typically observed include 'on-station' performance such as remaining in proper uniform, sun protection measures, posture, attentiveness, scanning practice and rescue readiness. Additional observations may include lifeguard rotations, slide dispatch procedures and supervisory interactions with lifeguard staff."
DeRosa said that as recruiting lifeguards becomes more challenging, more facilities are willing to provide free certification courses to those willing to work for a specific period of time. "Most well-run aquatic facilities have lifeguarding instructors on staff, to assist with certification courses and in-service training. These instructors are typically affiliated with one or more certifying agencies, such as the American Red Cross, StarGuard, YMCA or Ellis & Associates."
He added that lifeguards should be paid more than, say, fast-food workers, due to the demands of the job. "If the culture of an aquatic facility is not up-to-date with the changing needs of the workforce, the facility may find it increasingly difficult to recruit staff."
Griffiths explained that COVID-19 made things worse because pools couldn't recruit guards from the previous season. "Free lifeguard classes at the needy facility, hiring senior citizens, bonuses for new hires as well as staff members finding new hires all had varying degrees of success."
Swim Lessons for All
According to the World Health Organization, the risk of drowning is reduced by 88% for those who take formal swimming lessons. And yet many people just don't have the means to take advantage of learn-to-swim programs. Fortunately, there are nonprofit groups working to make swim lessons available for all comers.
Dan Vawter is vice president of AquaChamps Swim School in Oakland Park, Fla., the pilot swim school for Florida's new Every Child a Swimmer (ECS) program, which unites several organizations in a drowning prevention mission.
Dr. Bill Kent, chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, spearheaded the ECS legislation, which passed the Florida House and Senate in 2021. The legislation will require Florida schools to ask if a child has participated in swimming lessons as part of their school-entry health exam, and will require schools to provide information regarding swimming lessons if the parents report that their children have not participated in lessons. Additionally, to aid those in underserved communities, the program awards families funding to pay for formal swimming lessons through an accredited program. "The goal is to make lessons accessible and affordable," said Vawter, adding how they're working with the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance's Step into Swim campaign to clarify the criteria for eligibility.
Kent and Olympic Gold Medalist Rowdy Gaines are now taking the legislation national. "ECS has already started to partner with the United States Swim School Association, the American Red Cross, the YMCA and the American Swim Coaches Association," said Vawter. "Now you can go on the ECS website and search for a qualifying school near you. As the partnerships grow, so too will the database of participating swim schools."
Vawter said the pilot program at their school has been a big success, with lessons provided to more than 70 scholarship recipients, both children and adults. "We have parents of swimmers who have never learned to swim, some with near-drowning experiences, who are learning to swim so that they can enjoy the water with their children!"
The use of technology is fast becoming a standard of care in aquatics, according to DeRosa, with numerous products and services available to help lifeguards detect emergency situations in the water. "While the behaviors that trigger an alert may differ by manufacturer (e.g., motionless for 10 seconds, no movement toward surface), these drowning detection devices essentially alert lifeguards when someone has remained underwater too long, allowing them to intervene quickly to interrupt the drowning process. There are now 'wearables' that can be used as well, that track swimmers using Bluetooth technology. When a swimmer submerges, the signal is lost. If it doesn't reconnect in a defined period of time, an alarm will sound, not only alerting rescuers to the submersion but also indicating the beacon closest to the submersion incident," he explained.
DeRosa also feels it's important for pool operators to become certified, though he said that only about half the states require this. His company offers different certification programs, focusing on filtration, circulation, sanitation, chemical treatment and water balance, as well as an integrated focus on risk management and lifeguard standards of care and performance.
He also suggested that aquatics directors consider achieving the AqP designation through the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "This designation helps demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning, helping ensure designated professionals have the latest information in the field relative to water safety, pool operations and drowning prevention." RM