On July 29, 2009,Seattle was blazing.
The Emerald City had just reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit for the
first time in recorded history.
Municipal workers were mobilized to deliver water to the
homeless and check on elderly residents, while the Meals on Wheels
program offered extra fluids with its regular food
There may never have been a better time to seek relief in one of
the city’s 25 shallow-water pools. Why on earth then were
nearly half of those pools closed?
The answer, simply, is the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa
Signed by President Bush on Dec. 19, 2007, the law took effect
one year later. VGB, as it is known, has forever changed the pool
and spa industry.
The intentions of the law were noble, but serious questions have
been raised as to its effectiveness and the consequences it has
wrought. The question at hand is whether a law intended to reduce
the number of childhood drownings is having the desired effect. And
if not, exactly how and why did it go astray?
By all accounts, Virginia Graeme Baker was a vibrant, healthy
7-year-old. Graeme, as she was called, was one of five children of
Nancy and James Baker and granddaughter to James Baker III, the
former Secretary of State.
On June 15, 2002, Graeme accompanied her mother and four sisters
to a backyard graduation party at a friend’s home in McLean,
Va. It wasn’t long after their arrival that the day took a
“My youngest girls were in the water with the other
children,” Nancy Baker recalled. “I was talking to the
hostess when I saw [Graeme’s sister] running toward me. Her
eyes were like saucers. She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy,
Graeme’s in the hot tub.’”
What happened next is any parent’s worst nightmare. Nancy
dashed outside to see Graeme on the bottom of the spa, her limbs
moving with the bubbles. “I tried pulling her up, but I
couldn’t,” Baker said. “I kept coming up for air,
and I was screaming bloody murder. I pulled and pulled, not
understanding what was holding her down.”
It took two men to get Graeme out, and they used enough force to
shatter the flat 8-inch drain grate, which had suctioned her body
to the bottom of the hot tub. She died shortly after the
Her daughter’s passing propelled Nancy Baker into a world she
never dreamed she’d inhabit — the complicated,
contentious issue of suction entrapment. Graeme’s death, and
the horrifying story behind it, is the inspiration for the law that
now bears her name.
Occasionally, the drain cover of a pool or spa will break or be
removed by someone who doesn’t know the possible
repercussions. When this happens, a swimmer playing with the drain
can become stuck to the outlet much the way the hose of a vacuum
cleaner sticks to your palm. The force of this suction can be
tremendous — 350 pounds of pressure for an 8-inch main drain
with a standard pump. This suction entrapment will hold the bather
in its grip until the vacuum is broken. Wading pools and spas pose
the biggest entrapment danger because their drains are easiest to
There are a variety of ways to lessen the danger of
One is by installing dual main drains to eliminate single-source
suction. Using the vacuum cleaner hose analogy, imagine now that
there are two hoses connected to the same motor, and one is covered
by your palm. Air would travel through the other hose, interrupting
the force of the suction to your hand. The same concept can be
applied to pools and spas by building more than one drain. Many
states require that all pools be constructed with dual main drains,
however thousands of older vessels remain with single drains.
There are also other, less common ways of designing or
constructing a vessel to avoid entrapment. These include
gravity-fed systems, atmospheric vent systems and drainless
Another solution to entrapment lies in various types of safety
vacuum release systems, or SVRS’s. These products are
designed to let air into the system when they sense excessive
vacuum buildup. Some equipment manufacturers now sell pumps with
SVRS devices inside. There are also a number of free-standing
products that can be installed on existing pools or spas.
Finally, there are safety drain covers. These come in a variety
of shapes and sizes and are designed to prevent a vacuum from
forming between the drain’s surface and a human body.
While the effectiveness of each of these devices has been hotly
contested, one thing is certain: The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and
Spa Safety Act was the first piece of federal legislation
pertaining strictly to the industry.
Sponsored by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz , D-Fla.,
the bill imposed federal mandates aimed at preventing entrapment.
Chief among them was the requirement that all commercial pools and
spas be outfitted with a drain cover that meets standards outlined
by the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American National Standards
The law also stated that other anti-entrapment safeguards were
needed. It called upon the Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine a
number of further requirements.
And though VGB became complicated very fast, one thing was supposed
to be crystal clear: The law would make pools and spas a lot safer
Or would it?
Entrapment vs. drowning
From 1999 to 2008, there were 83 incidents of suction entrapment,
according to the CPSC. This includes 11 deaths.
While this is horrific, those numbers pale when weighed against
the statistics on accidental drowning. By comparison, as of Aug. 4,
2009, the state of Texas alone had lost 84 children to drowning for
the year, and not a single one by suction-entrapment.
Strictly speaking, entrapment is drowning, yet they also
are undeniably separate events.
Tom Griffiths, founder of the Aquatic Safety
Research Group , has spent more than two decades as director of
the Aquatics and Safety Office for Athletics at Penn State University in
State College, Pa.
Griffiths believes a more effective law would have focused on
teaching children to swim.
“That would have saved many more lives than changing the
drain grates,” he says. “The bottom line is, you now
have a huge law to prevent double-digit deaths. And the sad thing
is, we accept thousands of drownings each year. We just shrug it
While entrapment is a devastating event that should be
prevented, no one can argue that the number of incidents remains
quite low. But, as is often the case, a strange thing happened on
the way to Capitol Hill.
Slowly but surely, lawmakers a
nd others began to replace
entrapment statistics with drowning statistics — so much so
that in the “Findings” section of the VGB Act,
there’s not a single reference to suction-entrapment. There
are, however, references to drowning as the second leading cause of
death in American children ages 1 to 14; and the act does note that
“in 2004, 761 children aged 14 and under died as a result of
“I think those findings utilize the numbers and emotion of
drownings,” says Johnny Johnson, president of the National
Drowning Prevention Alliance and founder of the Blue Buoy
Swim School in Tustin, Calif. “It’s misrepresenting
the issue — there’s no mention of entrapment there.
You’re comparing apples to oranges.”
“The intent of the VGB Act was to protect against
suction-entrapment, and the goal was noble,” says Dan
Johnson, past president of the Florida Swimming
Pool Association and founder of Swim Inc. in
Sarasota, Fla. “But it’s not an effective
drowning-prevention act.… I’ve been told the chances of
a child being entrapped on a drain are 40 times less than they
would be for that child to be struck by
Who was in (and who wasn’t)
VGB was created to address entrapment, a tragic, but also extremely
rare, occurrence. Certainly pool and spa drains should be safe, but
why wasn’t this law part of a larger drowning-prevention
effort? Why was the number of child drowning victims cited again
and again rather than the actual entrapment statistics, which are
The answer may lie in who wrote the law.
SVRS’s are made by various manufacturers. The devices send
air into the system and/or power down the pump motor when a vacuum
increase is sensed. They are relatively easy to install, and cost
about $500 to $1,000.
Though VGB doesn’t require that these products be fitted
on every pool, they are listed as one of only a few permissible
options. Before the law passed, SVRS’s were virtually unknown
outside the pool industry. But the new legislation changed
Jennifer Hatfield, director of government and public affairs for
the Florida Swimming Pool Association, recalls a meeting she
attended in Washington, D.C. Also at the gathering were Wasserman
Schultz, the Congresswoman who sponsored the act, Bill Weber, CEO
of the industry’s national trade association , and Alan Korn, an official
Kids USA , a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Hatfield went into the meeting believing it was an opportunity
to discuss the language of what would become VGB. But the playing
field, she says, was noticeably uneven.
“[Our organization] really had no part in drafting the
original bill,” Hatfield says. “Our understanding was
that it had already been done by Safe Kids and the Pool Safety
The PSC was a group of safety equipment manufacturers founded by
Paul Pennington, owner of Vac-Alert , an SVRS-maker in Santa Rosa, Calif.
The organization has since been expanded and renamed the Pool Safety
Korn confirms his group was involved in the bill’s
drafting, though not in the “hyper-technical
“The Baker family helped craft a legislative response,”
Korn says. “A few pool service companies from Florida, drain
manufacturers, Vac-Alert and Stingl
Products (another SVRS manufacturer) were also brought in. And
the Association of
Pool & Spa Professionals was there representing the
Pennington declined to be interviewed for this story. Calls to
David Stingl of Stingl Products were not returned.
According to Carvin DiGiovanni, APSP senior director, standards and
government relations, the association did review drafts and provide
guidance on certain technical aspects of the act.
But to suggest the trade group played a significant role in
writing the bill conflicts with the accounts of those who entered
the discussions along with it.
“My involvement came late — the same time as
APSP,” says Larry Caniglia, executive director of the
& Pool Association . “I just knew it was very late in
the process. At that point, what was written was written, and we
were just trying to get the language fixed.… But we knew it
was an uphill battle.
“Honestly, I wish I knew who in the industry was involved
in writing it,” he adds.
When asked recently about who was responsible for the language
contained in the bill, Wasserman Schultz remembered a different
list of contributors.
“In drafting the bill, we worked with the staffs of the
Energy and Commerce committees, the CPSC and Safe Kids Worldwide
— that’s it,” she said. “We didn’t
have a legislative writing party.”
Wasserman Schultz’s bill didn’t become law on its
first trip through Congress. In fact, H.R. 5850 never made it out
of the House Subcommittee.
A Senate version, S. 3718, moved through the Senate but failed
to garner the two-thirds House majority necessary for passage. It
died with the close of the legislative session.
In the end, VGB was attached as a rider on the omnibus energy
bill that was approved by Congress in 2007. “[It was] a
vehicle to pass it,” Wasserman Schultz says.
After VGB was signed into law, numerous organizations —
including the National Recreation and Park Association and the
YMCA of the USA
— contacted the CPSC requesting that the deadline for
compliance be postponed.
They were joined by Thomas Lachocki, Ph.D., a longtime industry
expert and CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs,
Colo. Shortly before the compliance date, Lachocki issued a press
release titled “Controversial New Pool & Spa Safety Act
Will Create Public Pool Closures Nationwide.”
“Suction entrapment claims about one to two victims per
year based on historic data from the CPSC,” he wrote.
“In contrast, drowning claimed the lives of 761 children aged
14 and under in 2004, and those numbers may increase since fewer
children will attend swim lessons when pools are closed.”
Lochocki went on to explain that pool and spa operators across
the nation would be unable to comply with the VGB Act for a number
First was education. Despite the act having budgeted $5 million
a year for a sweeping educational program directed toward the pool
industry, no such program existed. The result, Lachocki said, would
be confusion or outright ignorance of the law.
Next was the question of drains. Though manufacturers were
working diligently, compliant drain covers still were not available
in the quantities required to satisfy the needs of 300,000 public
Moreover, the act required that the area below the cover (the
sump) may have to be excavated and replaced to be compliant. This
could add thousands of dollars to the cost of repairs at a time
when budgets already were stressed.
In addition, under state laws, local health departments must
review and approve changes before work on pools could begin. But
health departments didn’t have the resources to inspect all
public pools in their jurisdictions before the Dec. 19, 2008,
deadline. Operators would be forced to either break state law by
making the changes before local departments could inspect them, or
violate the federal statute by first seeking approval from the
In each case, the only other alternative would be to close the
Lachocki argued that a delay would create time to “resolve
technical issues and solve the entrapment problem — without
creating a drowning problem, reducing public services, and hurting
our fragile economy.”
However, no delay was granted, and on the day of the deadline,
hundreds of thousands of public swimming pools and spas suddenly
found themselves under the jurisdiction of the VGB Act.
Parts and labor
With the law’s compliance date quickly approaching, drain
cover manufacturers struggled to certify their products in
Though the issue was discussed prior to the bill’s
passage, Wasserman Schultz says there was no concern over whether
the supply of compliant drain covers would be able to meet an
expected spike in demand.
But in the weeks before and the months after VGB took effect,
scores of swimming pool and spa operators had little choice but to
close down as manufacturers strained to fill a backlog of
In Florida, public pools in Martin, Port St. Lucie and Indian
River counties sent away for new drain covers in fall 2008. By Dec.
20, 2008, those deliveries still had yet to arrive. The
manufacturer, according to published news reports, was bogged down
The following month, the El Paso Parks
and Recreation Department was fielding 20 calls a day from
residents asking when their area pools would reopen after at least
three were closed due to a delay in the shipment of compliant drain
covers, according to reports in the El Paso Times .
Similar scenarios played out, again and again, from Maine to
Jeremy Shoffner has been working with local suppliers for months
to find drain covers that fit the nine pools he oversees for the
aquatics program in San Jose, Calif.
“All of our pools had different covers,” Shoffner
says. “It wasn’t a cookie-cutter method of getting the
But obtaining compliant drain covers wasn’t the only issue.
Many pool operators had trouble finding qualified professionals to
Paul Norris was one of them.
“This thing was massive,” says the director of
recreation and leisure services for the town of Windsor, Conn . “It was hitting hotels, condo
associations, YMCAs.… We couldn’t get a vendor to open
our pools on time. We were late. There just aren’t a lot of
contractors around who can do the work.”
Worse yet, in many cases just because a contractor can’t
do the work, doesn’t mean he won’t. Rick Earnhardt
knows this firsthand.
As one of only a few licensed service professionals in Western
Pennsylvania, he’s completed upwards of 50 retrofits this
year — from large-scale college pools to private country
“What’s happening now is, people are making the
situation more dangerous than before,” he says. “And
nobody’s checking it.”
“I’ve seen everything,” he adds. “I saw
one pool where the covers were literally welded onto the bottom,
which is illegal. Other pools are now less safe hydraulically.
It’s a little scary.”
Before the VGB Act was passed, the Congressional Budget Office conducted an
analysis of its projected financial impact.
The CBO’s study concluded the law would not adversely
affect those who would be subject to its regulations, according to
Wasserman Schultz. “It was given an insignificant
score,” she says. “The drains are not expensive …
and the renovation requirements were minimal. I would say $5,000 is
a rare exception.”
But across the country, the fixes required of countless public
pools and spas have varied wildly in price, with some vessels
requiring tens of thousands in certified repairs. Again, the only
viable option for many has been closure.
In Seattle, where 11 of the parks and recreation
department’s 25 public wading pools were shuttered on the
hottest day on record, officials still are scrambling to locate the
funds to pay for needed repairs.
“It’s been a big effort,” says Kathy Whitman,
aquatics manager for the department. “Some of our bigger
pools have three full replacement drains. We’re looking at
about $10,000 per pool just for parts. And that doesn’t
include application fees, paying an engineer to conduct an analysis
of the pools’ mechanical systems, and the labor to install
“Clearly it’s going to be in the range — just
for the physical pieces and labor — of $400,000,” she
And Seattle is far from the exception. Renovations to 21 public
pools in Phoenix cost the city about $350,000 (average price for
each pool: $16,000).
Parks and recreation officials in Dickinson, N.D., were quoted
$55,000 to bring a single outdoor pool up to code, according to
Dickinson Press . No fewer than 10 public pools in Georgia were
closed for the season after state officials said they
couldn’t afford the $150,000 required to make the necessary
And in Woodbridge, Conn., families this winter were locked out
of the town’s indoor swimming facility at Beecher Road. The
pool was built in 1971 and carried L-shaped drains, recreation
department officials said. Because no compliant covers could be
located, the town instead planned to install new drains at an
estimated cost of up to $80,000.
But Wasserman Schultz believes it’s a matter of
“The entities that haven’t [made the fixes], quite
simply, don’t want to,” she says. “The pool and
spa industry continues to resist safety requirements. It’s
frustrating and it’s irresponsible.… It’s the
law, it’s time — get over it.”
The best effort?
There’s consensus among many of the nation’s leading
water safety experts over how the VGB Act could have been made more
effective. Besides properly funding an educational element, and
perhaps adding a component for child swim lessons, a graduated
methodology would have at least identified and targeted pools that
posed the greatest risk, they say.
“This really was a hot tub and wading pool problem,”
Griffiths says. “The law has merits, but to say in one
calendar year that all pools needed to change out their [drain
covers], to me was way out of line.”
He adds that a phased approach based on pool depth might have
been better. “I would have started at pools that are 5 feet
or less. More than 5 feet deep and it’s very hard to get
For his part, Dan Johnson would have liked to have seen the law
incorporated over two years with clearly defined, staggered goals,
such as creating an effective delivery system to disseminate
information from the federal level down the chain. That, he says,
also would have allowed manufacturers sufficient time to produce
enough compliant equipment.
Year two could have been dedicat
ed to educating the right people
about the act, namely health departments, building officials and
the pool industry.
“And I think [the law] went astray in that it was
fast-tracked,” Johnson says. “The language was
unfocused — they didn’t even consider all the issues
involved in suction-entrapment avoidance.”
But there’s another, darker truth that should not escape
mention. According to 2007 statistics collected by the Phoenix
Children’s Hospital , 85 percent of all child drownings
occur in backyard pools and spas.
So perhaps there should be a greater sense of urgency, in light
of the fact the CPSC still is yet to release its residential
guidelines for the new federal law; as of early fall there was no
defined mandate covering private vessels.
Which means, tragically, that the same spa, in the same backyard,
that claimed the life of Virginia Graeme Baker more than 7 1/2
years ago, is no safer today than it was the day she died.
Florida continues to be at the forefront of pool and spa safety legislation.
Was six months enough time to comply with the VGB Act?
Find a variety of resources on the VGB Act ? from archived articles and news headlines to multimedia presentations and related links.