BERLIN – With another summer season rapidly approaching, county health department officials are scrambling to ensure the hundreds of pools, hot tubs and spas throughout the resort area are in compliance with a new federal regulation on drain covers and suction entrapment protection standards.
Each year, tragic stories are reported around the country of children, and even adults in some cases, drowning in pools after getting caught in high-suction drainage systems. In December 2007, Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, which forces the owners of public pools and spas across the country, including Worcester County and Ocean City, to retrofit their drainage systems to comply with the new safety standards.
The act is named for Virginia Graeme Baker, granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III, who died in a tragic accident in June 2002 at the age of seven. The little girl was at a neighbor’s pool party with family and friends when her twin sister noticed her at the bottom of a hot tub adjacent to the pool. Her mother, Nancy Baker, tried frantically to pull the young girl from the bottom of the pool, but she was being held there by the suction of the drainage system. Two men jumped in and were able to free the girl after breaking the pump on the drainage system, but she perished from drowning.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, her mother, Nancy Baker, launched an aggressive campaign to create new regulations for pool and spa drainage systems and Congress enacted the bill in her daughter’s name in December 2007. Public and semi-public pool and spa owners were given one year to bring their facilities into compliance with the new regulations, making the effective date December 2008.
Locally, while most indoor pools and spas in Worcester County and Ocean City are already in compliance, because of the seasonal nature of resort areas, many outdoor public pool owners are just now scrambling to bring their facilities into compliance as they prepare for another summer season. All pool and spa owners are required to retrofit the drainage systems of their facilities to bring them into compliance including the installation of approved drain covers and other entrapment prevention measures.
According to Tom Possident, assistant director of environmental health for the Worcester County Health Department, owners of each of the 479 pools in the county to which the new regulations apply were sent notices recently about the changes and many are in the process of bringing their facilities into compliance. All pool owners are required to install approved safety drain covers and others are required to retrofit their drainage systems based on a variety of factors including the type of system and the age of the system.
In some cases, owners are required to install safety vacuum release systems, automatic pump shut-off systems or unblockable drain systems. In some extreme cases, owners are required to permanently disable their existing systems if they came be retrofitted to meet the new standards.
“In many cases, simply replacing the existing drain covers will bring the pools into compliance, but in some cases, a major reconfiguration of the drainage system is required,” he said. “We’re looking at anything that could lead to body entrapment, hair entrapment or even fingers getting caught in drains. The idea is to make these pools and spas as safe as possible and the new rules are very specific about what is allowed.”
Possident said each and every public or semi-public pool or spa in the county was sent a notice of the changes last year along with the required Aquatic Facility Review Form, which must be completed before a permit for use can be issued by the county health department. The form, essentially a check list for the various safety components spelled out in the safety act, must be filled out by a pool professional, meaning a certified professional engineer, a pool builder or contractor or a public pool consultant.
Once health department officials review the form, they inspect the pools and spas to ensure they are in compliance before issuing a permit. Possident said the process has been fairly smooth thus far, despite the dearth of hotel and condominium pools in the county as well as the numerous water parks and other public facilities.
“In most cases, it has been fairly simple,” he said. “The one thing we have going for us is the time of year for the effective date. We’re in a time of the year when most pool owners are getting their facilities ready for the summer and these changes can be incorporated in the other preparations they are doing.”
Possident said one area of difficulty for some pool owners has been the availability of approved drain covers. Obviously, with the recent passage of the effective date, there has been an increased demand for the approved drain covers across the country including Worcester County.
“One of the problems we’re running into is finding drain covers that meet the new standards,” he said. “The manufacturers are working non-stop to get these made and out on the market.”