Safety Bill On The Hill

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Almost four years ago, one of Nancy Baker's 7-year old twin daughters, Virginia Graeme Baker, drowned in a hot tub, the victim of suction entrapment. It's a story we hear all too often, and one that parents like Baker want the public to know about. Like all parents who lose children in water-related incidents, Baker is doing her best to make sure her daughter didn't die in vain by spreading the word about the hazards inherent in spas and pools. But unlike most parents, Baker's got a highly placed connection in Washington — she's the ex-daughter-in-law of former secretary of state James A. Baker III — and believes she just might be able to focus enough attention on entrapment-prevention to see that something gets done about it.

She's also got the backing of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a freshman democrat from Florida who's been a strong advocate for pool and spa safety since she first entered public service as a 25-year-old state legislator in 1992.

Early this year, Wasserman Schultz unveiled a federal bill that would award federal dollars to states that enacted certain safety laws, most notably perimeter fencing, antivortex drain covers and the anti-entrapment devices commonly known as SVRS, or suction valve release systems. The "Graeme Baker Memorial Pool and Spa Safety Act," as it's known, was scheduled for introduction onto the House floor in May, and has been circulating as what's known as a discussion draft since January.

"I know many in the pool industry for years have said supervision is the answer," says Maureen Williams, public relations manager for D & D Technologies, a supporter of the bill. "We don't think supervision [alone] is the answer because we know too many people who are good parents, who are vigilant parents, whose children slipped away in that one minute that they were on the phone or answering the door or making dinner. So we really believe in layers of protection, and the pool industry has gotten a lot more supportive of layers of protection, as well."

Williams, whose company makes safety gate latches, admits the bill faces long odds, but vows to throw the full support of D & D and the National Drowning Prevention Symposium, which D & D sponsors, behind it.

"The good part and the reason why this might pass is that it's really an opt-in on behalf of the states," she explains. "It's not mandatory. They can choose to participate and they will get grant funding for their participation. So I think it does have a good possibility of passage from that viewpoint."

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D., is CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on aquatic education and research. He's careful to point out that NSPF is all for safety, but expresses doubts about whether the Wasserman Schultz bill can pass, and even if it did, whether it would achieve its stated goals given what he feels is its narrow scope.

"The federal government has not spent a lot of time and attention on pool and spa topics, historically," he says. "The bad side of not having national rules in place on a lot of things is that there's a lot of inconsistency around the country, and inconsistency is usually a bad thing when it comes to rules.

"So I think having some national consistency has some benefits. Now, will this percolate as a priority — with the very important things that are going on — with our federal government? Well, who's to say?"

Well, one person who is willing to say whether or not the federal government will make it a priority is Don Burns, president and CEO of the California Spa & Pool Industry Education Council, more commonly known as SPEC. "Quite honestly, I think [Wasserman Schultz] has absolutely no chance whatsoever of having that bill enacted and signed into law," he says. "It will be dead on delivery. Congress isn't going to go along with it.

"If you look at the kinds of measures which congress has been seriously considering, this one falls far short of being what I think any reasonable congress member would call a serious attempt to address a problem."

Burns is quick to point out that his opposition to the bill has nothing to do with the issue of pool safety, and everything to do with the sponsor's approach.

"First off, I think most people in congress will recognize that this is a matter for the states," he says. "There will be a major concern about the federal government stepping into this area. You have the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission), which has issued a publication with recommendations as to how one can take care of his or her children when they have swimming pools in their residences. But she goes far beyond that; she's much more restrictive."

Suzanne Barrows, senior director of communications and marketing for APSP, agrees with Burns's objections to the bill's narrow scope, while stressing her sympathy for Baker and her cause.

"We encourage safety, and the only issue with the Wasserman Schultz bill is that people here feel it may be a bit narrow in terms of mandating specific devices to prevent entrapment, as opposed to the full range of precautions that need to be taken," she says. "Specifically it names SVRS. An SVRS does not guard against two types of entrapment: hair entrapment and mechanical entrapment — mechanical entrapment being a necklace or clothing or something like that. That kind of entrapment does not create a vacuum, whereas a limb or body entrapment can create that vacuum seal."

Barrows admits it's difficult to compare the number of suction- and nonsuction entrapments, because in most cases hospitals simply record them as water-related accidents, or, in cases of death, as drownings.

"That's a dilemma the industry faces, and also a dilemma for legislators and regulators," she says.

Widening The Scope

Barrows says that despite her reservations about the bill, she's keeping an open mind about its passage, citing the fact that it's currently circulating as a draft and that APSP and other industry groups have a chance to voice their concerns and possibly alter the bill to make it more inclusive. Toward that end, APSP sent a representative to the Hill on May 3, where Mark Laven of Latham Plastics testified on behalf of APSP before the Senate Subcommittee Consumer Affairs for Product Safety and Insurance.

"The chairman of that subcommittee is George Allen (R-Va.), and it's basically fact-finding on the part of the subcommittee about safety issues," Barrows says. "This is open to the public. So we're going to get into the conversation, because who better than the experts, i.e. our members, who build and maintain and service pools and hot tubs; the people who know how the equipment works and how the systems function to weigh in on how to avoid and prevent accidents?"

Lachocki also feels it's important to enter the discussion, but admits he's not sure how the NSPF, which has limits on how much it can lobby, will get involved.

"I think it's important that any organization in this field try to be involved," he says, "and to at least try to establish a dialogue with congresswoman Wasserman Schultz through our own legislators to try to come up with a broader solution."

And what kind of broader bill would Lachocki favor?

"If there was a law that would mandate and provide funds to come up with a national standard to prevent drowning or certainly reduce the number of drownings, the number of recreational water illnesses, to reduce chemical exposure, to reduce electrical hazards, to reduce suction entrapment, to reduce slips and falls and anything else bad that could happen, I think that would be a terrific thing," he says. "If we focus just on one aspect of the entire spectrum of things that could go wrong in pools and spas, in a way we're wasting an opportunity to have something that's a little more comprehensive."

Williams says she appreciates the work Lachocki and NSPF do, and acknowledges their commitment to the cause, but feels broadening the scope of the bill might muddy the water and actually reduce its chance of enactment.

"Coming from the viewpoint of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, I sent [the discussion draft] out to our board members to make comments, and there were some minor things made on things like 4-foot versus a 5-foot fence, but our group felt that this was a comprehensive piece of legislation," she explains. "I'd hate to keep adding other components that might prevent it from passing.

"Right now it's a freestanding bill and I hope that it'll continue to be freestanding, because when they start adding all these riders, it really gets confusing and usually you lose a lot of the quality of it."

Long Odds

Despite her firm endorsement of the bill, Williams admits its passage is a long shot. Still, she remains hopeful, and stresses that if nothing else, the effort will attract attention to the problem and may one day be looked at as an important step toward more-widespread safety regulations in the United States.

Lachocki, who wants to wait to see the bill in its final form before deciding whether NSPF will get behind it, agrees that it's not likely to pass in current form. But he's happy people are discussing health and safety in pools and spas.

"If the intent of the bill is to help states to improve their safety standards associated with pools, that's a good thing," he says. "If the intent is to require a couple of specific safety standards and that only the states that implement those will be rewarded with some federal money, then that could fall far short of achieving what its intent is.

"I think the intent [of any national legislation] should be very simple: to reduce the number of drownings and the number of suction entrapments.

When you look at the two of those, there are many, many more drownings every year than there are suction entrapments. There are many, many more recreational water illnesses every year than there are suction entrapments, so if individual things are mandated there could be mistakes in there. We could be missing where the most benefit could be provided by the federal government."

What's In The Bill?

The "Graeme Baker Memorial Pool and Spa Safety Act," which was authored by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida democrat, was introduced on the floor of the House in May. The bill is named after Virginia Graeme Baker, the 7year-old daughter of Nancy Baker who drowned in a suction-entrapment incident in a hot tub in 2002.

AQUA obtained a discussion draft of the bill, and following are some of its key details.

The bill would allow for states that enact swimming pool barrier laws meeting certain requirements to receive grants of $1 million from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

One set of provisions would require that pools be entirely enclosed by at least a 5-foot wall, fence or other barrier as measured on the exterior side of the wall, fence or barrier. Furthermore, the wall, fence of barrier shall have no opening (other than a self-closing and self-latching gate that opens away from the pool) through which a spherical object 4 inches in diameter can pass. For pools where a residence constitutes part of the enclosure, there should be at least one of the following: a minimum 4foot fence, a motorized safety cover, or ground level doors that are selflatching and lockable or equipped with an alarm.

Another section deals with grants to states that enact entrapment, entanglement and evisceration-prevention laws and includes guidelines for suction-outlet drain covers, safety-vacuum release systems and dual-suction outlets.

The bill spells out certain exclusions, including existing pools and hot tubs with lockable covers, and stipulates that states that receive grants spend at least half on educating pool construction and installation companies, service companies and consumers about the requirements and educating consumers or pool operators on drowning-prevention. In addition, it calls for the Consumer Product Safet y Commission to "carry out an education program to inform the public about ways to prevent drowning and entrapment, entanglement and evisceration in swimming pools."

To see the discussion draft in its entirety, along with links to other safety bulletins and checklists, visit

Prospects Of Passage

Some industry insiders may view passage of the tentatively titled "Graeme Baker Memorial Pool and Spa Safety Act" as a long shot, but two high-profile supporters are doing their best to get the message out to the public.

On May 2, Nancy Baker, mother of 7year-old entrapment victim Virginia Graeme Baker appeared on CBS's The Early Show along with Dr. Martin Eichelberger, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization devoted to preventing accidental injuries to children, to speak about the bill and alert viewers to the dangers of suction entrapment.

That same day, Graeme's grandfather, former Secretary of State James Baker, appeared on CNN's Larry King Live with Ms. Baker, his son's ex-wife.

"It seems to me pretty hard to understand how anybody could oppose this bill," Mr. Baker told King.

Later in the program King read a statement from the APSP: "Safety is a core belief and commitment of the pool and spa industry. We deeply regret the Baker family loss and our goal is to prevent these tragic incidents from happening.

"We respect and support what the Baker family is doing to elevate public awareness of pool and spa safety. There is a set of approved pool and spa safety standards that are more comprehensive than the proposals being put forward.

"We'd like to work with the Baker family and others to have these standards adapted [sic, per transcript] into law in all 50 states. We look forward to testifying with Nancy Baker on those issues tomorrow before the United States Senate."

Mr. Baker's reaction to the statement: "One good way to start would be to testify with Nancy tomorrow at the educational hearing that Senators George Allen and Mark Pryor are going to hold in the Senate.

"But an equally good way would be for them to sign on to this bill that Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz is going to introduce that at least begins to take steps in the direction that the association says they want to go. So, it might be interesting to know whether or not they're willing to sign on to that bill."

Speaking to AQUA, Suzanne Barrows, senior director of communications and marketing for APSP, expressed sympathy for the Baker family and shared a commitment to preventing water-related accidents, but reiterated the association's stance that the proposed bill was too narrowly focused.

"I have met Nancy Baker, and she is a very compelling person, and she has genuine concern," she says. "And we've advocated for years the many layers of protection, and encourage pool owners and hot tub owners to take all of them. So in that regard we hear Nancy Baker's concern. Education is very important, and for that reason we support any effort to get that word out there.

"As I said, with the Wasserman Schultz bill, the industry concern is that it may be too narrow. But again I'm commenting about the draft. When it goes through committee and gets to the floor, it may be a different piece of legislation."

Later on Larry King Live , Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) called in to announce his support for the bill. Dodd added a plug for Safe Kids Worldwide, the nonprofit group sponsoring National Safe Kids Week in early May, which this year focused on water safety with the theme "Safe Pools for Safe Kids." According to the group's Web site, Safe Kids Week included more than 300 events across the United States to educate parents and pool owners about keeping children safe from drowning. More information is available at

(Please see the lead news story on page 125 for further coverage of the Senate hearings)

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