That Can't Happen Here. Can It?
To Prevent Drowning, Empower Lifeguards and Others

By Rebecca Boyd, Hon. BA (Kin)

With this summer's news coverage of a woman's body being discovered in a Massachusetts pool, apparently three days after she went missing, a great deal of attention was focused on the lifeguards and what they may or may not have done that contributed to this bizarre series of events that led to the tragedy of the mother of five losing her life. The incident involved a woman who went swimming on a hot Sunday afternoon with neighbors, had a collision with the 9-year old neighbor at the bottom of a slide and never resurfaced. It involved allegations of lifeguards ignoring information about the missing woman and neighbors assuming she left the pool. It involved inspections by two health inspectors on the days her body was assumed to be at the bottom of the pool, with a permit being issued by the inspectors to a pool too cloudy to see the bottom in the 4-foot shallow end or at the 12-foot deep end.

Lifeguards and administrators from around the globe have been quick to express their shock and declare that this type of incident could never happen here. A television interview of lifeguards and pool managers at another Massachusetts pool categorically stated that could not happen at "their pool."

Regulations vary from one locale to the next. In Canada, while we have legislation in Ontario in the form of health regulations that govern pool chemistry and clarity among other things, the recent changes to health regulations in provinces such as British Columbia may increase the chance of unsafe pools opening. In Massachusetts, the clarity of the water appears to be a strong contributing factor to the death of Marie Joseph. The checks and balances put in place in the form of lifeguards, pool regulations and health inspections appear to have failed.

We know from experience that incidents related to water clarity occur. Remember the days when we would close a pool's deep end if it was cloudy, but keep the shallow end open? While we have moved on from that frightening practice, the drowning in Toronto in 1997 and in Arthur, Ontario, in 1993 due to "murky water" reminds us of the importance of water clarity in our pools.

The Ontario Health Regulations require a minimum of 0.5 ppm of chlorine and a pH range of 7.2 to 7.8. The assumption is that if the pool water being tested is within these ranges, the water must be safe to swim in.

Yes, correct chemistry reading will help keep swimmers safe from recreational water illnesses, but it does not necessarily address the clarity of the water. This is where other parts of regulations come in.

The important lesson for everyone involved in the operation of public pools is to know the regulations and to feel and be empowered to enforce them, regardless of the popularity of the decision.

The ability to clearly see a 150-millimeter black disc at the pool's deepest point from nine meters away is a regulation in Ontario's Health Regulations 565 and under Manitoba's Swimming Pool and Other Water Recreational Facilities Regulation 132/97. British Columbia's revised regulations of April 2011, also requires a black disc of 150 millimeters on a white background, at the deepest point of the pool, be clearly visible. These regulations work to ensure the pool bottom of public swimming pools is clearly visible to lifeguards.

But written regulations do not lifeguard a pool. They guide and govern pool operations, but it is the human lifeguard who performs the scanning and inspections on a daily basis. Lifesaving Society - Alberta and North West Territories Branch research presented at the 2007 World Congress on Drowning shows that even in pool water with "perfect" chemistry readings and the black disc being visible, there are other factors that make it challenging for lifeguards to see someone on the bottom of the pool.

Lifeguards have regulations requiring them to close a pool when the water clarity is poor, but have managers given them the authority to do so? Has the culture of responsibility been created at the facility to enable staff to close a pool when the bottom cannot be clearly seen on a steaming hot day when the pool is at capacity, and not lose their job? If staff are not knowledgeable about the regulations and their responsibilities or they do not feel empowered to make the important call on closing the pool, this type of tragedy can occur anywhere.

In this most recent case, the lifeguards, pool managers and health inspectors failed to follow the State Sanitary Code: Chapter V, which deals with water clarity. Ironically, it includes the same black disc requirement as in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia. The city of Falls River health inspectors noted in the report that was used to issue the pool permit that the water was cloudy but issued the permit regardless. Had one of the groups involved—lifeguards, managers, inspectors—followed the written regulation on water clarity, the tragic death of Marie Joseph might have been avoided.

Much of the focus in the Massachusetts drowning has focused on the lifeguards' performance, and there is much information to yet be publicized following multiple investigations. The important lesson for everyone involved in the operation of public pools is to know the regulations and to feel and be empowered to enforce them, regardless of the popularity of the decision.


Rebecca Boyd is aquatics and risk management coordinator for the University of Waterloo, Department of Athletics and Recreational Services in Waterloo, Ontario.

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