An entrapment last month at a public pool on Merritt Island, Fla., has safety advocates questioning the validity of a state code.

The incident involved a 4-year-old girl whose arm became entrapped by a vac line port. It marks the third of its kind in Florida, a state that has adopted the APSP-ANSI-7 Standard for Suction Entrapment.

“We’re creating hazards that I promise you one day are going to cause more than a broken arm or a twisted back. One day they are going to cause a death,” said Dan Johnson, president of SWIM Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. “This is making those of us in Florida who are in this industry look like Neanderthals by not embracing current technology.”

The three incidents are the only known reported cases in the United States. The first one dates back to 2008 and required firefighters to cut a hole in the wall of the concrete pool to free the toddler’s arm. A year later, another young child was saved in the same manner. In June, Merritt Island rescuers were able to extract the girl’s arm by applying a lubricant.

Though none of the mechanical entrapments were fatal, the occurrences may be indicative of a growing trend, and should result in a review of the public pool code, said Steve Barnes, chairman of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals’ Technical Committee, and safety and compliance manager at Pentair Aquatic Systems.

Currently, sections .64E-9.007(8) and (12) of the decades-old state code, 64E-9 Public Swimming Pools and Bathing Places, read: “The filter and vacuuming system shall have the necessary valves and piping to allow filtering to pool, vacuuming to waste, vacuuming to filter. … A portable or plumbed in vacuum cleaning system shall be provided. ... Recirculation or separate vacuum pumps shall not be used for vacuuming purposes when used in excess of 3 horsepower.”

The root problem with this mandate is that it requires a “known hazard,” particularly in pools where there are no lifeguards on duty or scheduled inspections by the operator, Barnes said. According to the code, the opening of the vac port is supposed to be sealed by a self-closing, self-latching cover. However, the cover reduces the size of the opening in the wall, and a commercial-sized vacuum hose doesn’t fit.

As a result, the service technician or the individual cleaning the pool has to remove the fitting to attach the hose and then replace the fitting when he or she is finished vacuuming. However, the fitting isn’t always put back on — in fact, it’s not unusual for an operator to leave them off completely.

“We see these ports missing covers all over Florida,” Barnes said. “Under code, the pools are supposed to be vacuumed every day if it needs it, and it’s a pain in the neck to undo the set screw that locks it in place.”

Advances in technology, coupled with an increased emphasis on safety standards, point to more sophisticated ways to clean pools that would not pose a threat to swimmers, Johnson said.

Barnes agreed. “The powers that be in Florida need to look at this issue very seriously and look at how other states are keeping their public pools clean without this clear and present hazard,” Barnes said. “I don’t recall seeing these ports on any commercial pool outside of Florida.”

Some alternatives include manufacturers providing new fittings that accommodate the 2-inch hose. At this time, however, the product is not available, in part because many builders aren’t aware of the issue, resulting in a lack of demand, Barnes said.

A second option is to observe how other states are handling the concern and use that as a guide. California, for example, has actually outlawed the use of vac line ports altogether.

“They just are not in California public pools; therefore, [they] don’t have the problem in California, and yet their pools are clean, so it seems like a zero-risk solution to me,” Barnes concluded. “We have these three incidents so the current code is not working, but we know it works perfectly in California so let’s just outlaw these things.”

An opportunity to do so is on the horizon.

The Florida Building Commission Swimming Pool Technical Advisory Committee, which formed in June, was scheduled to meet for the first time this summer. The group, composed of two pool contractors, four building officials, four Department of Health officials and an engineer, will work to establish recommendations for a new public pool code that they will present to the FBC, Johnson said.

He is optimistic that lawmakers will take into consideration suggestions from the committee, as well as members of the public, examine codes in other states, weigh the options and revise Florida’s code so future entrapments can be prevented.

One such code that may serve as a guide pertains to how the state handles vacuum ports in wading pools, Barnes noted. Section 64E-009 (6) Wading Pools: Vacuuming states: “Wading pools shall have no provisions for direct suction vacuuming where the vacuum port is in the pool floor or pool wall or accessible to patrons.”    

“There couldn’t be a better time than now to raise this issue,” Johnson added. “We have to help these officials in crafting the code, and hopefully they’ll rely on us.”

Though most experts support a change in the law, some have concerns, particularly in the service sector.

Rob Sanger, president of Galaxy Pools in Sarasota, thinks that altering the code for new pool construction could help prevent future entrapments, but is concerned about applying the revised language to existing pools.

“If you’re going to make it a retroactive law, you are certainly not going to make a lot of property owners happy,” he said. “That would be just another thing on the pool owners that they have to do.”

Instead, he agrees with Barnes that the inherent problem lies with the covers. So, rather than change the code entirely, he suggests requiring a flush style version. Because a flush cap sits flat against the wall and features a small slit in the middle to use for removal, there is nothing to grab onto, making it much more difficult for a curious child to remove, Sanger explained.

Currently, they are available, but because these caps are not code compliant, they are not permitted for use on the vac line ports. In the meantime, service technicians should make a greater effort to tighten the caps to make it more difficult for a child to remove, he observed.