Drain covers law is saving lives
August 25, 2009
By Chantelle Lusebrink
Issaquah pool operators are working on changes to make your swimming experience safer.
A federal law that was supposed to be implemented by December has pool operators rethinking safety and investing in new equipment. But the road to implementation has been anything but smooth.
The Virginia Graeme Baker Act was passed by Congress in December 2007 after the 2002 drowning of Virginia Graeme Baker, 7, granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III.
The act is designed to prevent drowning caused by entrapment in pools and hot tubs.
Pool operators in the Issaquah area are hiring engineers to evaluate systems, purchasing drain covers that meet standards, and even tearing up pools and re-installing systems to ensure compliance.Moving, covering or re-installing drains
Every year, there are nearly 300 drownings and more than 3,000 emergency room visits for submersion-related accidents involving children younger than 5 in the U.S., according to Safe Kids USA.
Entrapment incidents occur when body parts, hair, swimsuits or jewelry get caught in the suction of a pool drain and cause people to drown. Between 1999 and 2008, 83 were related to entrapment, according to the Consumer Protection Services Commission. Eleven of those were fatal. (Seven deaths occurred at residential pools; four were at public pools.) Other incidents resulted in injuries.
Pools and hot tubs owned or operated by counties, cities, schools, hotels, fitness centers, homeowners associations, and apartment and condominium complexes are affected by the law.
There are about 1,800 pools or hot tubs subject to the law in King County. Of those, there are 107 in the greater Issaquah area, or within the 98027, 98029, 98008 and 98059 ZIP codes.
The law calls for publicly used pools and hot tubs with high-flow suction drains, or multiple main drains that are close together, to install new drain covers to prevent a person from making direct contact and making entrapment unlikely, said Christin Beard, the aquatics director for Klahanie’s two pools, the Mountainview Pool and Lakeside Pool.
Parental supervision and talking with children about not playing with pool equipment is the best way to ensure children’s safety, she said.
The law calls for the drains of pools, children’s wading pools and hot tubs with one main drain to have an anti-entrapment cover. It also calls for pools with two main drains 3 feet or less apart, such as the case of Klahanie’s two pools, to be moved as an added safety precaution.
Larger pools often have one or more main drains throughout the pool. Some pools, like Issaquah’s Julius Boehm Pool, use low-flow gravity drains rather than suction drains.
“Our drain doesn’t tie into suction,” said Anne McGill, city parks and recreation director.
A diver was sent to the bottom of the pool to test it as soon as pool operators came across the new requirements.
“We were very, very proactive on understanding where we fit in in the process, but this pool isn’t one of the ones that can create that situation where the little girl was sucked to the drain,” McGill said.
Many pools have yet to comply with the law. Several local pool operators said they weren’t able to purchase drain covers until the beginning of this year, because they hadn’t been manufactured. Such was the case at Columbia Athletic Center at Pine Lake, said Vincent Cucineli, the aquatics director.
“I heard about it in October 2008, but there was nothing available on the market,” he said. “We tried, but it wasn’t until early in the year, like January or February, that anything was available.”
When drains became available, they purchased them immediately, installed them in April and submitted plans to the county, he said.
County can’t force compliance
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in Washington, D.C., is responsible for monitoring and ensuring compliance. But since the state Legislature has not enacted its own law, regulating compliance is hard for county officials, said Mark Rowe, with the county’s Environmental Health Division.
“King County does not have the authority to shut pools that are not in compliance with the requirement of the rule,” Hilary Karasz, communications officer for the county health department, wrote in an e-mail.
At Klahanie, engineers assessed the pools for what was needed to ensure compliance, Beard said.
“We didn’t want to Band-Aid fix this,” she said, adding it will cost nearly $25,000 to re-install the pools’ drain and pump systems. “We realize we could become compliant by just installing the drain covers, but we had our engineers evaluate everything we need to do to provide maximum safety to our patrons and ensure full compliance.”
Klahanie does not have drain covers on either of its main pools. Once permits are granted and construction is finished, both will meet all requirements of the law. Beard said a drain cover was put on the children’s wading pool’s one main drain.
That cost can make it prohibitive for pool operators to make necessary changes and the public may see a lot of pool closures, said James Tripp, the manager for Klahanie’s Homeowners Association.
Others are moving quickly toward compliance.
“I’m for anything that makes our facilities safer,” said Margot Navarre, general manager at the Sammamish Club. “So, we made the changes as soon as possible.”
Facilities manager Barry Hagen said once they were able to get the drain covers, they were purchased immediately and installed in May. Workers also plugged the club’s suction vacuum system, he said.
About $275 has been spent to make changes. The club’s drains are far enough apart and don’t produce enough suction to warrant a full construction project, Hagen said.
Pools at public residential facilities, like apartments and condominium complexes, have also made changes to keep up with the law.
The pool at Summerwalk Apartments in Klahanie installed drain covers and was recently inspected by King County officials, said a complex manager who asked not to be named because she is not supposed to talk to the media.
Owners at Overlook at Lakemont and Lakemont Orchard have also had new drains installed to meet requirements and keep people safe, said regional manager Brett Stevens.
“From our perspective, it is an amenity offered when you lease an apartment here,” he said. “There is not a choice to shut down. It is a cost of running a business.”
Plans need to be approved by county
Each pool operator must inspect drains and drainage systems, and submit plans for county officials to approve. The inspection report includes clear engineering plans, detailed schematics of a pool’s layout, types of drains and suction or flow rates, photos and plans for compliance.
Once plans are approved, a pool operator can complete construction or installation work.
Terry Clements, a county employee who helps recreational aquatics facilities conform, said officials are working through paperwork they are receiving. However, some reports are incomplete and will be sent back to pool operators to finish.
County officials said they don’t have submittals from The Sammamish Club, Klahanie, Julius Boehm Pool or Columbia Athletic Center’s Pine Lake facility, and that operators who had a third party draw up the plans, like Klahanie did, may want to check with that provider.
Plans that have been submitted and are complete are in the evaluation process, Rowe said. Review and approval takes about four weeks, Clements said.
But many local pool operators said they mailed their paperwork this spring and are still waiting to hear from county officials.
County officials estimate about 15 percent, about 270, of the 1,800 permitted pools and hot tubs operating in the county have submitted plans. Pool operators for the remaining 85 percent, or 1,530 pools, haven’t.
County officials know at least some of those have had drain covers replaced. As they do regular inspections, inspectors are noting replacement of drains without plan submittals as a violation, according to Karasz.
Those who receive violations will get assistance from county officials to come into compliance.
“If they cannot or will not, there is an escalation that can eventually result in fines, though that is not our goal, whether we are talking about food safety or pool safety,” Karasz said.
While Klahanie workers have yet to finish their drain system, they haven’t been fined because they are working with county officials to come into compliance, Beard said.
“We’re open because we are still working through the process,” she said. “It’s one of those slow and steady things.”
On the Web
Pool/hot tub and drowning prevention — www.poolsafety.gov
Drain cover information — www.poolsafety.gov/
Public pools inspected regularly, randomly
Random, unannounced inspections are conducted at all permitted public pools in the county. Inspectors can shut down a facility if they believe public health or safety is in jeopardy.
Inspectors check equipment and operations, water chemistry and chemical lockers, employees certifications and expiration dates, lifesaving equipment, procedures and surrounding safety measures, like fencing or secured doors.
In 2008, 366 pools and spas were closed, according to Todd Yerks, of the county public health department. Some pools were closed more than once.
None of the pools in this article were shut down by the county in the past decade, according to pool operators and county documents.
Eastside Fire & Rescue inspects pools for chemical and fire hazards. Chemicals must be stored properly and away from any heat sources.
The city’s insurance carrier also inspects the Julius Boehm Pool. Those inspectors might recommend moving diving boards, or replacing tiles or lighting fixtures, all with patron safety in mind.
Some aquatic facilities, like Klahanie pools or the Boehm Pool, have lifeguard programs to ensure public safety. Others offer learn-to-swim programs and water safety events.
Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.