Roll With the Changes

What Aquatic Facility Managers Need to Know About ADA, VGB and More

By Rick Dandes

Even the most experienced aquatic facility owners and pool operators sometimes find it hard to stay on top of new ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) guidelines, confusing VGB (Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act) mandates and the ongoing requirements to certify and properly train lifeguards.

On July 26, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice released updated ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The law took affect March 15, 2011, with compliance required by March 15, 2012.

Among the updates—which apply to a number of facility types—were new requirements specifically for public swimming pools, explained John Caden, the director of pool lifts for a Canby, Oregon-based manufacturer of swimming pool equipment, including accessibility equipment.

The 2010 regulation defined permitted means of entry to a pool: a primary entry—pool lifts and sloped entries—and a secondary entry, transfer walls, transfer systems and accessible pool stairs. The only means of entry that can be used on its own without any other means of entry is a sloped ramp.

"Swimming pools with less than 300 linear feet of pool wall must have at least one primary means of entry, handicap lift or sloped entry," Caden said, citing the regulations. Swimming pools with more than 300 linear feet of pool wall must have two means of entry, and at least one of them must be primary. The primary means of entry must be either a sloped entry or a pool lift capable of being independently operated by a person with a disability. The secondary means of entry can include a pool lift, sloped entry, transfer wall, transfer system or pool stairs.

"The first thing aquatic facility managers need to do, if you want to see if your pool is in compliance with the new directives is to go through a barrier removal analysis," Caden said. That is, analyze the facility and determine if you are subject to ADA regulations; if you are, what types of pools do you have on site and what kinds of compliance will be required by those pools?

"If you already have an existing means of access," Caden noted, "make sure they comply with the regulations spelled out in the ADA rules." Under the regulations, there are nine different criteria for pool lengths.

One example of the complexity of the new rule involves lifts. Years ago, Caden recalled, facilities bought manual hand-cranked lifts. "They were fairly inexpensive, about $1,000, whereas most pool lifts are $3,000 to $5,000," he said. "But the problem is that this kind of lift doesn't meet the new guidelines, because one of the requirements is that lifts have to be capable of self-operation. If you have one of those manual types it needs to be upgraded."

Once the barrier removal analysis is completed you need to determine which of those barrier removal requirements are do-able, Caden said. "Because existing facilities must comply with ADA regulations to the extent that the compliance is readily achievable. And that means, able to be accomplished without much difficulty to your bottom line."

Caden suggested putting together a written implementation plan, in which you note everything that has to be accomplished. Keep the document on site, he said.

Examples of what might be in a plan include: if your facility has a wading pool with a flat bottom, ADA regulations say you need a sloped entrance that extends to the deepest part of the pool. But what if making those improvements would cost in excess of $50,000? Considering your budget, that improvement might not be "readily achievable," period. Make note of that fact.

Meanwhile, if you have a pool less than 300 meters in length, you need to have one means of access. Document that you will purchase a swimming pool lift. And so on.

For more information about ADA guidelines, Randy Mendioroz, president, Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif., suggested going online to the U.S. Access Board Web site, There, he said, "you'll find a section that talks about guidelines and standards, and there is also an ADA standards page as well to click to. Absolutely the best way to comply is by knowing the updated law."

Benefits of the New Regulations

ADA regulations benefit more than the disabled population, estimated at about 50 million people in the United States. Add senior citizens into the mix, and you're probably addressing 30 percent of the U.S. population that requires some kind of mobility assistance, including getting in and out of a swimming pool.

By making a pool accessible, Mendioroz said, you open it up to a population that currently isn't served by that pool. "Understand, that's a good percentage of your tax-paying public if you're a parks and recreation department," Caden said. "These folks are being deprived of using that pool simply because they can't get in.

"If you are a hotel or a health club," he continued, "you can expand your market size considerably by making the pool accessible. In those kinds of situations you can also offer some additional programming that complements the accessibility. An example of that would be to expand your competitive swimming programs to include Special Olympics athletes and also Para-Olympic athletes."

Another group of users who could benefit from the new ADA regulations are veterans returning from the Middle East who are injured and may need more robust programs to recover.

"We just recently completed a job for the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton," Mendioroz said, "and it's called the Wounded Warrior facility."

What Mendioroz's team created were some specialty pools designed specifically for rehabilitation. An alarming number of soldiers come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with injuries, and the military has learned that you can cut their rehab time almost in half when they are rehabbing in water as opposed to rehabbing on dry land.

"We designed a facility that incorporates a therapy pool with a moveable floor system, so the floor of the pool goes all the way up to the pool deck," he said. "Users don't have to step down or go down any ladders. You can basically walk right out on the platform, or roll your wheelchair out onto the platform, and the floor lowers, like an elevator. Besides that, the floor also turns into a treadmill, and there are underwater cameras. It's cool stuff, but it's not cheap. The floor itself costs about $250,000. But it's effective in terms of being able to rehab these folks after an injury."

The Costs of Non-Compliance

The ADA guidelines are complaint-driven statutes, and are enforced basically by people lodging complaints. It's a federal law, but if you're not complying, someday you'll be caught, Caden said. And, if the Department of Justice gets involved, they have the ability to levy fines of $50,000 or more for not complying.

"Having said that," Caden said, "the DOJ is probably not going to get involved unless it's a big fish. They will typically not go after a small operation; that will be left in the hands of a local judge or local mediator. The agency goes after larger clients, looking for patterns of systemic noncompliance."

A second offense, however, can cost more than $100,000.

But what if there is no money available, as is often the case these days in small municipalities, such as townships or villages.

Keep in mind that for existing facilities, changes are required to the extent that the compliance is readily achievable. If a facility can't afford it, they can put if off until they can afford it, keeping in mind that barrier removal is an ongoing responsibility. And what is not readily achievable today may change in the future.

There are ways to lessen the pain of a tight budget. If your pool is part of a private entity, you could be eligible for a tax credit if the needed changes are made. It will pay half of the cost of a barrier removal modification up to $10,000 and it is available to entities that have annual revenues of under $1 million or 30 or fewer full-time employees.

Another way to lessen the pain is to buy equipment through a leasing program. That way, seen as a business expense, you can offset some of your taxes.

Finally, if you are a local entity like a parks and recreation department, look for grants. Kiwanis clubs and Rotary clubs are always looking for ways to improve their community, and if you are in a smaller city or town and have a tight budget, you can go to a local service organization and apply for the grant, saying that your changes will improve the community.

"Nobody has any money," Mendioroz said. "I hear that all the time and I understand that in this economy. But that doesn't mean you can't put some funds aside for capital improvements every year and this can build up over time. You do have to improve your facility from time to time, if for no other reason than you need to get people excited about something. There is no better thing than a new pool, a facelift to your facility, to garner attention. People will notice. And with the improvements, the ADA improvements go along with that."

No matter what your situation, know that when you are building a new facility, you are going to have to comply with the most current codes. If you have a good design team, they will bring to your attention what those issues are. It's more challenging if you have an existing space and you're trying to bring it into compliance with current code.

Remember, you have to make the facility fully accessible, from when you park the car to where a person goes in the front door. But that's usually not an issue when dealing with new construction.

Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act

Pool operators also need to be aware of the latest requirements mandated by an update of the 2007 VGB law—legislation that takes its name from Virginia Graeme Baker, a young girl who drowned after being trapped under water by the suction from a hot tub drain.

The updated mandate by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission decreed that a backup system or device now is required on single main drains at pools and spas. "The rule change," explained Thomas M. Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), "means an unblockable drain (greater than 18 by 23) is no longer sufficient to comply with the law.

Now, he said, all drain covers must comply with anti-entrapment standard. No compliance date has yet been announced. The CPSC was taking public comment through the end of 2011 before deciding on a date, but Lachocki said, "I'm guessing facilities will have to be compliant by Memorial Day."

Fortunately, there have been no suction entrapment fatalities since this law went into effect. But the effect of the new regulation might be considerable, he believes.

"Look," Lachocki said, "the potential impact of having this change places additional financial burdens on facilities that are already facing extraordinary financial challenges."

These changes could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, Lachocki added, and when more pools close, one potential outcome is that fewer children learn to swim, and as a result, the risk of drowning goes up.

The Best Defense: Lifeguards as First Responders

If you think of lifeguards as first responders, and just as important as EMS workers rushing to accident scenes, you'll understand how important the initial certification process is when looking to fill that position. Aquatic facility managers should make sure all lifeguard certifications are current and that they have documentation of all those current certifications.

"One of the key things for managers is to understand the job of a lifeguard," suggested Roy Fielding, who works with The Red Cross, and teaches at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Fielding is one of the foremost aquatic directors in the nation and has been working with pools for more than 40 years. "There are facility managers who really don't have an idea of what a lifeguard does."

Everyone who operates a pool should have training on lifeguard management, Fielding explained. "You want to know before even hiring what kind of skills they have. For example, in almost all lifeguarding programs there is a minimum depth at which they have to perform skills—usually 6 to 7 feet. Well, my pool at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte goes down to 13 feet. So here, I need to pre-test them before I even hire them to see if they can do the job."

Tom Griffiths, president, Aquatic Safety Research Group, of State College, Pa., added that pools need sufficient numbers of lifeguards for high-volume periods.

Probably the most crucial thing that pool operators don't know is that more than 50 percent of all drownings occur when there are organized groups coming to the pool, like school groups. That's when you need extra hired staff on hand.

"I do a lot of expert witnessing for lawsuits," Griffiths said, "and more than half the calls, when they're talking about tragic drownings, usually occur at some type of birthday party or school group."

Another mistake facility owners make is paying low wages for the lifeguard, and then asking them to do myriad other jobs. "There is nothing inherently wrong with that," Griffiths cautioned, "as long as they don't do the secondary swimming pool duties when they are supposed to be watching the water. Lifeguarding is a full-time job, and their main responsibility is patron surveillance."

It's the pool operator who should be certified to run a pool's mechanics, Griffiths insists; it's not the lifeguard's job. Operators should know about treating the water, about its chemical makeup.

When it comes to hiring, every operator should know their area's demographics, added Farhad Madani, consultant, Association of Aquatic Professionals, based in Austin, Texas. "They should know their city, and they should know where to actually find their staff."

If there is a high school swim team, Madani said, "that would be an area where they could recruit from because they already know how to swim. You can't just hire anybody off the street." In an inner-city environment, where people might not have extensive swimming skills, you need to set up a training system. And lifeguards should be required to pass a lifeguarding test.

"I wish I could wave a wand and say that in-service training is mandatory by all facilities that have lifeguards," added Fielding, of The Red Cross. "Because there is quite a range of certifications, from one year up to three years, and individuals who took a course two years ago and are still current in their certification need in-service training, whether it's CPR training, first aid training. EMS responders train all the time.

Lifeguards need to be reminded of their responsibilities because they are really guarding people's lives. They are professionals. Try to get across to them that anything can happen at any time and they need to be prepared for it.

"But we also have to educate patrons," he said, "They need to be responsible for watching their kids. Education of the patrons is important; having learn-to-swim classes, all that leads to a much safer pool environment."

Griffiths likes to warn new lifeguards about the dangers of the "drowning Ds. The first 'D'," he said, is dereliction of duty. This is when the lifeguard leaves their post to go to the restroom or to run to their car in the parking lot. Leaving the pool is the worst thing that can happen. This is your worst sin."

After that, it is distractions, he said. "We are distracted all the time just naturally, by handheld devices, for example. Lifeguards may need phones at work but phones should not be on the pool deck. Eliminate all distractions."

Then, when something goes wrong in the water, there is almost disbelief and delay. "One of the most important things I tell life guards, after avoiding dereliction and minimizing distraction is when in doubt, fish them out," Griffiths said. "Too many children die in swimming pools where the lifeguard just doesn't believe that the child is drowning. They think the child is playing or holding their breath under water. Just don't delay."

The other "D" is disguise. When water is rippled by wind or splashing kids in the water, it is hard to see people on the bottom because you are looking through what looks like an obscuring shower door or a bathroom window. The water can disguise victims. So the lifeguard should be aware of seeing anything over or under the surface.

It is a progression, he said, but every second could be critical.

Lifeguards need to be alert at all times. They need to realize that when they are sitting on that chair, they are responsible for everyone's lives.

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