As the deadline neared for commercial pools to comply with the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, some facilities announced that they could not make the necessary alterations and would have to close.
Passed in 2007, the legislation states that as of Dec. 19, 2008, every commercial pool nationwide is required to have certain safety measures in place. All drains must be outfitted with approved covers, and single-main-drain pools need either split drains, safety vacuum release systems, vent systems or other approved methods. Unblockable drains measuring more than 18-by-23 inches can stand on their own.
The law has been toughest for older and larger facilities that can’t be fixed with off-the-shelf drain covers. Many of them have drains that were designed specifically for the pool. These require the services of a so-called “qualified design professional” to help determine what kinds of repairs would bring the pool up to speed.
Estimates for these alterations have ranged from $2,000 to $200,000, said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The more common numbers are in the $15,000 to $20,000 range,” he added.
At press time, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with facilitating the law, still had not announced any kind of reprieve for pools and waterparks needing to make major repairs. And while some local officials don’t plan to enforce the law, others are aggressive about warning public pool managers that they must comply by the deadline.
This has created an untenable situation for facilities that were already financially strapped.
Officials from the Amherst Middle School in Amherst, Mass., said the costs to retrofit the campus pool could run as much as $110,000, which the school does not have. Athletic director Karen Keough-Huff told the local press that her school plans to use its pool through Dec. 19 and will make other arrangements beyond that point. Dozens of other pools throughout the state are in the same bind.
A YWCA pool in Muncie, Ind., also will close. Operators said that facility was already struggling financially and couldn’t foot the $21,000 necessary to bring the pool into compliance.
Some pool operators are talking about permanent closures, Lachocki said, while others plan to shut their doors only long enough to obtain the funds.
“The scenarios I’m hearing are all over the spectrum,” Lachocki said. “Some are saying, ‘If we have to do that, we’re just going to close.’ Others are saying, ‘We have 20 or 30 pools, so we’re going to fix five of them this year, and we’ll budget to fix another five next year.’”
Many programs and even trade groups have requested deadline extensions from CPSC; however, the agency doesn’t have the authority to grant more time. Because the deadline was written into the legislation, it would take a similar act of Congress to change it.
To offer some alleviation, CPSC has said that it will recognize “good-faith efforts,” such as back-ordering the needed drain covers if they’re not currently available, or hiring a qualified design professional. Pools that close for the winter have a little relief — they will have until they open before they must comply.
But for pools with drains measuring 8-by-8-, 9-by-9-, or 12-by-12-inches, there will be no leniency, said CPSC Spokesman Scott Wolfson. “Product has been out there for some time now,” he said. “We would expect that owner/operators with [those] size drains would have … reached the point of compliance.” Additionally, he said, some unblockable square and rectangular covers were made available earlier this month, so pools using those should order them.
Currently, about 90 percent of public pools will not be compliant by the deadline, according to anecdotal input Lachocki has received.
“We’re on a precipice,” he said. “On one side, there’s the risk of entrapment. On the other side, there’s the risk of drowning. If we don’t close pools, there’s the risk that there will be some entrapments. If we do close pools and fewer children learn to swim, then there’s clearly a risk of drowning. The challenge we face is to continue to walk along that precipice of compliance to eliminate the risk of entrapment without creating a new risk of drowning.”