When Californians Bill and Marcia Kerr had the chance to move to Florida in the mid-1980s, to open Life Saver Pool Products, a pool cover retail store, they accepted the challenge, never entertaining the thought that six months later their worst nightmare would come true.
The Kerrs were well aware of the dangers a pool posed to small children, and for that reason they had an automatic pool cover installed on the pool before moving into their new house in Florida.
Despite this, their two-year-old son Cody slipped unnoticed out the back door and fell into the pool, which was temporarily uncovered following a shock treatment. By the time the nanny found Cody, it was too late to save him.
"We were teaching other people about pool safety at the time our son drowned and we thought we had done pretty much everything to protect ourselves, which just kind of blows apart the myth that 'it can't happen to me,'" says Marcia, who now lives with her husband in Lake Forest, Calif., and works as a consumer information officer with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"After that happened, even though we thought we knew a lot about drowning prevention, we needed to make people more aware."
Unfortunately, experiences such as the Kerr's happen every year to other families when their children drown in backyard pools. Some industry professionals are hesistant to address this issue f0r fear of losing potential sales. However, if safety issues are not discussed, neither are measures homeowners can take to ensure the pool in their backyard remains a safe and happy gathering place.
Today, there are many safety products and regulations designed to help reduce drownings, from safety covers to personal immersion alarms. However, with the proliferation of these products and regulations, such as an abundance of fencing laws, also comes confusion for all those involved, from builders and service professionals to retailers and manufacturers.
AQUA recently spoke to several people inside and outside the industry to identify what the safety concerns and dilemmas are today, and what one can expect to happen in the very near future.
A Silent Death
"I know story after story of where an adult, untrained supervisor literally watches a child drown, thinking they were down underneath the water having a good time," says Ronald Gilbert, chairman for the Foundation of Aquatic Injury Prevention in Fenton, Mich.
Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a pediatrician on the committee for violence, injury and poison prevention at the American Academy of Pediatrics in Phoenix, Ariz., says, "If you understand that drowning is silent . . . a lot of people have the misconception that you splash around and go under once, and then you come up and scream and go under twice and come up and scream — that's not really what happens. What happens is you fall under and then you're not heard from again. It's very quiet."
But making more people aware of the dangers of drowning is difficult, says Shannon Martin, manager for Texas Blue Lake Pools of Amarillo, Texas. "We say, 'Drowning is silent. You won't hear them. The phone rings and you go get the phone, you won't hear them drown.' That was a big thing for me. There's no substitute for supervision."
Although everyone AQUA spoke to agree adult supervision is the main factor in reducing drownings, many say it is almost impossible for a parent to supervise their children each and every minute of every single day.
"One of the messages to parents from the Consumer Product Safety Commission is children can and do escape supervision," says Bob Lyons, president of Terrapin Communications, Ottawa, Ontario. "Your children will escape your supervision. And that sort of ties into the layers-of-protection model, which is very simple: No single device, strategy or technique can work all the time. So to achieve some security, you need layers."
A Layering Effect
According to Gilbert, statistical evidence from the Arizona Drowning Coalition starting in the late-1980s shows that when Phoenix, Ariz., began implementing new laws and safety regulations for residential pools, drowning was reduced by approximately 50 percent. "And that's not taking into account the population in the county has tripled since then," he says.
But which layers of protection do the experts recommend a homeowner use, besides adult supervision?
Weiss says the No. 1 piece of equipment homeowners can put in their backyard is a proper isolation fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate that children cannot climb over or dig underneath to get to the pool area.
"The answer is simple," he says. "It's a working fence. If anything is going to work, that's it. The problem is that people don't like fences because they are expensive and ugly. They like to look at their pretty water. The problem is kids like pretty water too, and they fall in it. So you almost should treat your backyard pool the way you treat the street. You wouldn't have your kid playing in the street and a pool can be just as dangerous. Another problem is there are a lot of places where there are no fence laws, or lots of places where there is a law, but all kinds of loopholes."
Weiss cites an article in the February 2003 issue of Pediatrics titled, "Childhood Drowning: Barriers Surrounding Private Swimming Pools," by Mark Stevenson, which examines three-sided fencing vs. four-sided fencing vs. no fencing in Australian residential homes.
"In their abstract, they say 68 percent of drowning occurred in pools that did not have four-sided fencing, with an almost two-fold increased risk of a child's drowning in a swimming pool with three-sided vs. four-sided fencing," he says. "And the number I've seen in the past is that drowning is a four times increased risk in comparison to no fence at all."
Weiss also says that for now, there is simply not enough statistical data to state whether other layers of safety, such as pool alarms or pool covers, have really made much of an impact in decreasing the number of drownings that occur.
Lyons, who manufactures a personal immersion device called the Safety Turtle, says he believe layers of protection will not matter if the homeowner does not have a regimen that everyone participates in, and most importantly, agrees upon.
"The starting point is recognition and a regimen that you practice," he says, "because none of these products can be better than the people who use them. These are tools, and that's all they are."
Are We Selling Safety?
Although all of this information is useful, none of it will stop a child from drowning if homeowners are unaware of the problems and solutions available to them. But is the swimming pool industry really doing enough to educate one another and, more importantly, homeowners?
"As a retailer, we absolutely talk about it more than we ever did," says Martin. "We started passing out the National Spa & Pool Institute pamphlets, and once we really got active with that, it wasn't taboo for me to talk about. I wasn't afraid of it."
Martin also says there are more and more homeowners coming into her store every day looking for safety devices for their pools that they might have seen on hotel or apartment building pools. "We tell them how to use it," she says. "We don't just say, 'Yeah, it's $65.30 — go.' We actually tell them, 'Now, you know not to jump in? You throw a ring buoy out, you pull people in.' We try to explain what it's for and why."
Kerr also says she sees retail stores in her area that carry information on safety that is useful to homeowners.
"I think that in general, retailers in certain communities see the same customers over and over and get to know them, because they are community stores. They really do care about their customers and of course their livelihood is keeping their customers happy and safe, so I think most of the retailers really do try to address safety."
Others, however, think the industry is not doing enough to advance safety — and in fact is hindering the process.
"It's the industry's problem in part, and there are some individuals in the industry who are heroic in their efforts, no question about it, but the industry as a whole hasn't put any rubber on the road at all, as far as I'm concerned," says Lyons.
"Why can't multi-million dollar companies selling pools play a part of some sort trying to address the problem. Where's the person that everybody can listen to and talk to and come together to find out what's going on?
"There is a lot of work to be done," he continues. "I think there are divergences of views and there's a lack of a forum for the smaller retailers to come together and find out what's really going on."
Gilbert concurs: "The pool industry fights some of these regulations, which I think is unfortunate. [There are] examples of how companies probably spent tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to rescind a law that would reduce drowning that could have been put into prevention work.
"So I'm somewhat critical of the pool industry. The National Spa & Pool Institute has done good stuff, but there are places around the country where the pool industry could take a little more responsibility in making these products and regulations work."
"This is a confusing area," agrees Weiss. "People who have lost their own kid in a drowning feel tremendously guilty, and I think sometimes they are preyed upon by all these people who are selling stuff.
"I just think until there's proof that some of these gimmicks work, it's like pushing the next thing to keep you from slicing in golf. There's just no evidence that it works, and the one thing we do know works we've got to push that, and that's the fence."
Although most everyone agrees there is plenty of work that must be done in order to make swimming pools safer, there are some organizations that are taking the reins.
For example, Kerr says one of the 2004 strategic plans for the Consumer Product Safety Commission is to address pool safety.
"We're really going to be looking at what the general public, and more specifically what health departments and the pool industry, are doing in different parts of the country," she says.
And although Kerr can't state exactly what industry members can expect, she did say that better data and meetings might be available in the near future, and there may be brochures with new information available.
Steve Barnes, a member of NSPI's Technical Committee, believes the industry will be looking back at this transitional period within a couple of years.
"I think this stuff is really going to start landing at the code level relative to state legislatures in 2005," he says. "My personal mission is to draw a circle around unsafe conditions and say, 'Thou shall not do any of these, but how you choose not to do it is totally up to you.'
"I'm optimistic. Keep the issues in the forefront. Coming out of the Orlando meeting March 3-4, NSPI hopes to have some good language that's universally accepted by all camps that says, 'Here's the problem, here's how you identify it and here are some solutions.'"
In the end, it is up to the industry as a whole to come together and provide simple and effective plans to homeowners on how to safeguard their pools against drowning.
"The problem with the backyard pool and the way they're used as entertainment centers and the way one- and twoyear-olds act, half the accidents are accidents that could happen to anybody," says Lyons. "That will only change, in my view, when everyone recognizes that reality and has layers of protection."
The spa and pool industry's livelihood is dependent on keeping homeowners and their families happy and safe in and around swimming pools and spas.
Problems can occur, however, when a professional would like to discuss safety measures with a homeowner, but isn't fully aware of what is available in the marketplace. Described on the following pages are products from safety covers and enclosures to swimwear and personal immersion alarms — all designed to promote safety around recreational water.
Take the time now to learn more about safety procedures and products. In the future, this issue will only become more important.