A number of groups are vying for federal funds to conduct training on the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

Among organizations bidding to lead the nationwide effort are the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals and the Northeast Spa & Pool Association.

“We want [whoever is doing the training] to be able to instruct state and local officials on what to look for when conducting inspections,” said Kathleen Reilly, public affairs specialist for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “They will also be training pool operators on things like flow rates and whether the pool is functioning properly — so it’s more than just drain covers.”

CPSC’s decision was expected by the end of May. 

In effect since December 2008, VGB imposed requirements aimed at preventing suction entrapment and drowning in public pools and spas. It also called for an educational component to inform state and local officials, the pool and spa industry, and commercial pool owners on how to comply with the act.

That training is especially crucial for inspectors, said Lawrence Caniglia, executive director of NESPA.

“Enforcement on commercial pools is sporadic in our region, so this is really a chance to get those code officials up to speed in a uniform manner,” he explained. “While many health inspectors now get it, we’ve still got a lot of these guys out there who don’t know it all yet.”

NESPA has been working to educate government inspectors and building officials on VGB even before the law took effect. The opportunity now, he said, is to spread a consistent message to a much broader audience.

APSP also has been communicating with code officials and pool builders about the law for some time, according to Kirstin Pires, director of communication.

“This was essentially a proposal to build on the education we already have in place with VGB,” Pires said. “It was a fairly easy thing to say that we already communicate with these people.”   

Reilly added that it’s possible CPSC will award the contract to multiple organizations, utilizing individual groups’ strengths and networks for maximum effectiveness.

While the goal is to bring all public pools and spas into compliance with VGB, implementing the federal law still may prove to be a challenge. For one, states cannot be required to enforce federal regulations — only state laws. This means that federal enforcement of VGB still falls to CPSC’s inspectors.

But CPSC only has a few thousand staff members to carry out its mandates, Reilly said. With resources already stretched, the question remains to what extent state and local officials can be expected to take on additional duties.

In Houston, the public health department has had to augment its regular pool inspection staff of six by adding three more inspectors. These new hires are actually sanitarians who previously conducted restaurant inspections, said Phil Weldy, commercial pool manager with the department’s environmental health division.

“We don’t have the resources to bring on more people,” Weldy said. “So we had to get restaurant inspectors on loan to train and help us catch up. They essentially passed a law with no provision for hiring new inspectors. Welcome to the world of unfunded mandates.”

Following VGB’s passage, states were in fact granted the authority to enforce the federal law. So while state officials couldn’t be forced to require compliance of pools and spas, they did have the legal power to do so if they wanted. To that end, CPSC’s chairwoman, Inez Tenenbaum, has been imploring attorneys general since early 2009 to accept responsibility for ensuring VGB compliance, or pass state laws mirroring the federal one.

Several states recently adopted new laws in the spirit of VGB, but none go far enough to qualify for federal grant money to offset the cost of additional expenses related to inspections or enforcement.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes the Phoenix metro area, the Environmental Services Department has 10 employees who conduct compliance and construction inspections for the area’s 8,500 public and semipublic pools. And over the past 1½ years, they’ve mostly educated themselves on VGB.

“Just reading the law — that’s essentially all we had,” said Kevin Chadwick, manager of the department’s water and waste management division. “Maybe a press release here and there from the CPSC, but not much else.

“Our approach has been informing customers that we’re only authorized to enforce state laws and health codes,” he added. “As a courtesy, our plan reviewers could let an owner know if they were in compliance with VGB. But all we require is compliance with our own rules and regulations.”