Sink or Swim
Aquatic Operations Adjust With the Times
By Emily Tipping
n times of turmoil, the onslaught of new lingo can sometimes overwhelm us with new ways of talking about things: "green-collar jobs," "gas-sippers," "naked shortselling," "stagflation," and my personal favorite, coined by a free-lance writer, "greedlock." These adaptations of language help us explain new or different ways of thinking. Take "staycation," for example. You've likely heard this one plenty over the past year. As gas prices soared and the economy sunk, more people chose to use their vacation time around their hometown.
And experts in the recreation industry say that the "staycation" trend is good news for facilities of all stripes. As more people choose to use their leisure time around their hometown, they'll be increasing their use of aquatic parks, fitness facilities, parks and playgrounds.
But that doesn't mean you're not feeling the crunch. Like many, you may be working to do more with less these days. You're also dealing with new problems, like the challenge of bringing your facility into compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act. And the same old challenges faced by aquatic facilities—reaching out to the non-swimming public, battling recreational water illness, keeping things running smoothly and adapting to new technologies—are still around.
You can tread water, getting by with what you've always done, or you can take on the "Phelpsian" feat (to use another newly coined term) of swimming hard into the current to meet the challenges you face.
Many factors are competing to put pressure on aquatic facilities. You might find it challenging just to maintain your budget.
The biggest impact on pools has been felt in the residential market, as new construction starts have crawled to a standstill. But Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), added that he is hearing more about new and planned aquatic facilities feeling the impact of the crunch.
On the other hand, Lachocki pointed to some positives. "With a down economy," he said, "more people may be looking for local facilities for entertainment and exercise. We need to be preparing for doing the best we can, and also preparing for an upturn."
He added that this is no time to hold back on the operational issues. That means continuing to invest in keeping your water free of disease and fun for the public. But for many facilities, adding new amenities to increase the fun may represent a challenge. The good news is that there are some simple ways to bring more fun to your facility without breaking the bank.
One example lets you use inflatable elements to outfit your pool for an aquatic competition suitable for all ages. According to Robert Cirjak, CEO of the company that makes these inflatables, there is a variety of games and events designed around the products that "promote social interaction, balance, coordination and motor skill development for children of all ages, something that is sadly lacking in today's electronic world."
Slides and other water-play elements are also relatively inexpensive additions.
Other facilities are looking for ways to adapt their pools that may be losing money. In some cases, they're removing in-ground pools and installing spraygrounds.
"More communities are looking at closing pools and putting in a splash pad," said Jay Byrd, vice president of sales and marketing for a manufacturer of splash play products.
In Wooster, Ohio, for example, the city had three pools, one of which was struggling. The city replaced that pool with a splash play area, and now the new attraction is outperforming the two remaining pools, Byrd said.
Some benefits of splash play? It's a lower outright investment than building a collection of pools, yes, but it also comes with lower long-term costs.
"You don't have the liability," Byrd said, which can save thousands in insurance costs. Why? There's no risk of drowning. What's more, you don't have to pay to staff the facility with lifeguards.
And if you have a pool that's sinking into the red, a sprayground lets you continue to provide water recreation to the community.
Byrd further added that many park directors are reporting that while they still want to make improvements and add aquatic options, they don't have the budget even to support a full sprayground. He pointed to misting as an option for these facilities. It represents a much smaller investment than a full splash play area, but still gives patrons a chance to cool off and have some fun in the water.
"People are looking to still have that water element, but spend less money," Byrd said. But he added that there are still plenty of agencies with projects that represent substantial investments.
Many communities are taking a long view and recognize that water has a major impact on economic development, Byrd explained.
One such success story can be found in South Carolina, where Greenville County Recreation District (GCRD) Facilities Director Raymond Dunham, CPRP, said they've found a lot of success through creative partnerships, smart approaches to funding and community goodwill.
A hospitality tax has funded 17 different projects for the county, Dunham said. "We did it through partnering with the community and establishing partnerships throughout the community," he said. "We worked closely with elected officials as well."
The recreation district has a waterpark, called Discovery Island Waterpark, which is expanding this year by adding a sheet wave attraction for surfing. The district is also expanding some of its older pools. "We're adding a larger spraypad to one of our existing pools and we're renovating that facility," Dunham said. "And at the northern end of the county we have a very old pool built back in the '70s that we demolished and are going to be putting another small waterpark up there in 2010."
Part of the success of these aquatic facilities comes from the lack of competition, Dunham said. "But what helps us more than that is that our rates are reasonable and we do a great job on the customer service side," he added. "We set our standards above and beyond what's required. We pride ourselves on keeping our facilities clean, having staff look and act professional, and we provide the training to do that."
All of it adds up to a pretty impressive result for Greenville County: The waterpark not only covers all of its operating expenses, it also covers its debt service and has generated additional income every year.
Keeping things fresh—at the waterpark and throughout the district—is one way Dunham keeps patrons coming back for more.
What advice does Dunham offer to other facility directors?
"I would say first and foremost, look at your core competencies. Find what you are good at, and try to expand on that," he said. "I think sometimes people try to diversify too quickly. Make sure you're doing everything to maximize your core competencies."
On top of that, look for ways to partner with others in the community to maximize everyone's results, he said.
"If you can look outside your own little box to ask how you can help the rest of the community, it can make a big difference. Reach out and do those partnerships," Dunham said. "The more you work with your own community, the greater benefit you're bringing, and that does the marketing for you."
Speaking of marketing, Dunham said the district relies on its relationship with the local press to get the word out about its facilities—a no-cost method everyone can learn from.
Even if you're financially doing OK, you may be facing another challenge: the implications of trying to comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act.
Enacted by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush on Dec. 19, 2007, the law is designed to prevent drain entrapment and eviscerations in pools and spas. Under the law, all public pools and spas need to have compliant drain covers installed and a second anti-entrapment system installed when there is only a single main drain (e.g., a safety vacuum release system or SVRS).
Pools had until Dec. 19, 2008 to comply, but according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, most of the country's swimming pools have not managed to come into compliance yet.
The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (APSP) outlined some of the challenges faced by pool owners in a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency responsible for enforcing the law, back in October 2008:
- Lack of availability of compliant covers, and the challenge of getting customized covers for larger or oddly shaped drains.
- Lack of registered design professionals to field-certify covers for larger unblockable drains.
- Permit holdups for some facilities.
Other associations and many pool professionals weighed in with the CPSC and their members of Congress, seeking to extend the date required for compliance, but no change was made. The CPSC expected public pools and spas that operate all year to be in compliance by the Dec. 19 deadline. Seasonal facilities get a slight reprieve—they must comply upon their reopening date in 2009.
"Our mission at the CPSC is to keep American families safe," said Nancy Nord, CPSC Acting Chairman. "CPSC will enforce the requirements of this pool and spa safety law with a focus on where the greatest risk of drain entrapment to children exists, such as wading pools, pools designed specifically for toddlers and young children, and in-ground spas, particularly where these types of pools and spas have flat drain grates and single main drain systems."
According to the Wall Street Journal, various pools are taking different measures, with some closing down and others staying open while trying to come into compliance. You too should make a good-faith effort to comply with the law.
The problem is that if there is an incident at your facility and you're not in compliance, the consequences could be severe. And even if there is no incident, if the CPSC discovers you're noncompliant, your facility will be shut down until you can make the needed changes.
One problem, according to Lachocki, is that it is critical to look at the intent of the law—which is to prevent entrapments, as well as drownings.
"Congress wisely appropriated and required that the organization that is going to enforce and implement this law (the CPSC) perform training because it's needed," he added. "If someone isn't telling pools what's required and how to come into compliance, the intent won't be achieved.
Where the mistake comes into place is by not fulfilling that legal responsibility to provide training, but still putting the burden on people to come into compliance—it places more lives at risk than you save."
"If people really follow the law, nearly every facility would be closed," Lachocki added. "Most facilities are not in compliance. And if most pools close, millions of children are not going to get swim lessons."
The point? In 2004, 761 kids drowned in the United States in streams, lakes, pools and so on. And over nine years, the CPSC tracked about nine deaths due to entrapment.
"If you close all the pools to prevent one entrapment, you increase the likelihood of drowning, as fewer kids have lessons and don't get those critical swimming skills," Lachocki said. "It's not acceptable that we have entrapments. Any pool that can should come into compliance as quickly as possible. But when the pools are safe because they have covers that may not be compliant but still prevent entrapment, it doesn't make sense to close those pools."
After several years with major outbreaks of Cryptosporidium, or crypto—in Utah, New York and other locations—anecdotal evidence shows that in 2008, there may have been some improvement. But that's no reason to let down your defenses.
Crypto is just one of many recreational water illnesses that causes acute gastrointestinal symptoms. But the big problem for you is its resistance to chlorine.
"My understanding is that last year we saw fewer very large outbreaks," said Lachocki. "But I would urge everyone not to rest on their laurels. Many facilities still do not have trained and certified aquatic professionals on staff. Crypto still remains resistant to chlorine, and though we get the word out as best we can, there are still many people who are not getting the information."
Prevention is essential, and the disease's chlorine resistance presents the biggest problem for facility operators. Know the ins and outs of maintaining the right chlorine levels, and you're one step closer to successfully preventing outbreaks. You also should consider ancillary technologies that can further help prevent an outbreak, such as UV and ozone systems.
UV is already required in some states, but Jim Tanner, a representative of a company that manufactures UV filtration systems, as well as other methods, warns that it is not a silver bullet.
"There are other technologies that will help address these issues," he said, adding that we should be on the lookout for technologies that are successful in Europe, which are often imported to the United States.
Byrd pointed out that while five states require the UV system, it can be an expensive proposition. On the other hand, as more people add UV, the cost will likely come down.
You should be aware that UV systems do not replace chlorine. You'll still need it in the water. UV simply provides an extra layer of protection.
Dunham said that Greenville County will be using UV filtration on its new spraypad, but that's not the only weapon in the district's arsenal. "We make sure all of our turnover rates are faster than what is required by code," Dunham said. "We test the water with a greater frequency than what's required by code. We make sure all our staff are trained."
And that's another other key component of preventing RWIs: education. And that includes your staff as well as the public using your facility. You also need to be aware of outbreaks that might impact your facility. You can sign up for a "Prevention Advisor" e-newsletter at NSPF.org.
"Anyone who signs up will be notified if there's an outbreak in their region," Lachocki said. "The better we communicate, the better facilities can superchlorinate, add UV systems and ozone systems to help mitigate and reduce larger outbreaks."
If you do have an incident at your pool, you can use the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) six-step hyperchlorination procedure to treat your pool. This involves raising your pool's free chlorine residual for an extended period of time in order to inactivate 99.9 percent of Crypto in the pool's water.
You also need to alert all of the other aquatic facilities in your area, so they can treat their water, too. Studies have shown that pool patrons don't necessarily stick to one body of water, so the culprit may have taken the crypto to more than one facility.
Check out www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming to learn more about preventing and treating RWI outbreaks.
No matter how you tackle these operational issues, there is one thing that remains constant, Lachocki said: the need to continue to encourage people to get out and take swim classes and have fun in the water!
Through creative partnerships, smart programming, excellent customer service and savvy handling of industry issues like compliance and illness prevention, you're be well on your way to a swimming success.
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