Simple Engineered Solutions: Minimizing Fatalities in Residential Pools and Spas
By Susan Rivera, Ph.D., CPO
In May, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC), the government agency responsible for enforcing the Federal Pool and Spa Safety Act, released its pool or spa submersion statistics.1 For 2008 through 2010, an estimated annual average of 5,100 children under 15 years of age were treated in US hospital emergency departments for injuries associated with pool or spa submersions. On average, 380 of these visits resulted in fatalities each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death among children ≤14 years old.2. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, the CPSC released its 2011 summer snapshot of the number of drowning and near-drowning incidents across America; the total was estimated at 103 drowning and 104 near drowning incidents.
So why does this matter to dealers and service providers? It matters because over 70 percent of these child fatalities occur at residences. Some might quickly dismiss the events, rationalizing the outcome as a failure for a caregiver to provide constant, vigilant supervision. But think about it. What parent, including yourself or someone you know, provides vigilant supervision for each child under its care 24 hours each day? It takes only minutes for a child to reach a pool and drown. Previous studies show that most young children from the age of 1-4 who drown in a residential pool were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes and were in the care of one or both parents at the time.3
Humans are prone to err and some experts speculate that the economic downturn may be contributing to drowning incidents this year. According to a KPHO report, the number of incidences of potential drowning in Arizona is “right on track with about 30 by this time of year across the board for the past five years.” 4 But this year, the number of deaths has doubled. Some officials speculate that caregivers may be distracted with worries, diverting focus for the short amount of time it takes for a child to drown. The economic times may also be forcing parents or primary caregivers to share childcare responsibilities with grandparents or roommates who may not be used to childproofing their homes or pool areas. Without physical barriers limiting access to the pool, the time allotted for even the most conscientious caregiver may not be enough to prevent the accident.
Service providers and pool operators are in an excellent position to promote pool and spa safety awareness. By initiating a customer education process, dealers may be able to save a child’s life, in addition to potentially expanding their businesses.
Reducing risk at home pools and spas
The best way to minimize risk and prevent unintentional drowning is to adopt and practice as many water safety measures as possible, including improving swimming and water watching (lifeguarding) skills, regular use of flotation devices, and implementing as many physical barrier and warning systems. You never know which one of these steps will make a difference—until it does.
Both the CDC and CPSC provide guidelines or recommendations for reducing risk of drowning in residential settings.5,6 Another source of information is the National Swimming Pool Foundation (www.nspf.org), a non-profit organization that offers a wide variety of downloadable reports and training opportunities; the CPSC has an online document entitled Safety Barrier Guidelines for Home Pools. Some local governments have incorporated the CPSC guidelines into building codes or other regulation. Be sure to check with local authorities to determine whether to treat the guidelines as regulation or not. These agencies and organizations will provide different perspectives and levels of detail on how to reduce risk around residential pools and spas; however, most generally agree on the following risk-reducing steps:
- When children are in the water, supervision is important.
- Use barriers such as pool fencing to help prevent young children from gaining access to the pool area without caregivers’ awareness.
- Employ common sense methods to deter children from entering the pool area. – For example, consider removing floats, balls and other toys from the pool and surrounding area immediately after use.
- Learn how to swim.
- Learn CPR.
- Avoid alcohol or other judgment-changing substances.
The remainder of this article will focus on using engineered solutions to minimize child access to pools.
Engineered solutions consist of barriers, pool and spa covers and alarms. They do not necessarily need to be expensive. It will be important to strike a balance between optimal safety engineering and cost.
Barriers. An outdoor swimming barrier is a physical obstacle that surrounds a pool or spa so that access to the water is limited to adults. A successful pool barrier prevents a child from getting over, under, or through it to gain access to the pool or spa. Barriers commonly include fences, walls or gates. Four-sided pool fences that completely separate the house and play area of the yard from the pool area are recommended. There is an 83-percent reduction in the risk of childhood drowning with a four-sided isolation pool fence, compared to three-sided property-line fencing.6 The fence should be at least four feet high, with self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward. Latches should be out of reach of children. In addition to deterring entry, barriers can provide caregivers additional time to locate a child before an accidental drowning occurs.
Safety covers. A pool or spa safety cover is a manual or motorized barrier placed over the water’s surface and is easily opened or closed by an adult. Safety covers for spas are generally manual. Pool and spa safety covers are a great way to visually deter curious children because they say, ’not open‘ for use. The covers are typically bulky and heavy enough to inhibit the entry of a child less than five years of age. Covers strong enough to withstand the weight of two adults and a child in the event an individual falls on the cover and requires assistance to exit safely are desirable. To increase the safety impact, be sure to remove ladders and slides that provide better access to the top of the cover. While covers are primarily a safety measure, they also have the added benefit of preventing debris from falling into the pool or spa and keeping in heat. This ultimately reduces operating costs.
Alarms. Alarms for doors, gates, and windows leading to a pool or spa are safety features designed to alert adults when unsupervised children enter the closed off area. Door and window alarms are often used when the house serves as the fourth wall of the perimeter of the pool. These systems tend to be more expensive, but offer an additional protective measure in residential settings by alerting caregivers when unsupervised children enter the pool or spa area. There are a number of different types of alarms that can be mounted at points of entry. In all cases a switch, often a magnetic switch, is tripped when a gate, door or window is opened. The alarm will activate when the door or window is opened. It is important to remember that alarms are only as good as the person who is meant to act in the event of an alarm. In security terms, this function is called the ’command and control‘ center. Command and control is responsible for 1) hearing/receiving alarms, 2) quickly assessing if the alarm is false or not and 3) responding quickly in the event of a real emergency.
Each of these engineered solutions can contribute to overall pool and spa safety. Remember, one of the most important goals is to put a barrier between the child and the pool. The barrier can be simple and relatively inexpensive. A little bit of research into local codes and simple methods to minimize risk could position you to provide a service to existing customers or start building a more diversified portfolio of offerings for a new customer base. At a minimum, advice your offer could provide a caregiver with precious moments to find a child before an accident occurs.
Unintentional drowning at residential pools and spas is preventable. And service providers may have a large role to play in reducing child drowning deaths. If you are on a service call and notice a pool without a barrier, you might consider asking if young children have access to the pool or spa. In this way, you can professionally promote pool and spa safety. You may even be able to expand your businesses by providing safety systems for interested customers.
About the author
Dr. Susan Rivera is the Manager of Applications at MIOX Corporation. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Utah and a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) certification from the National Swimming Pool Foundation. Rivera assists customers with pool disinfection management and has traveled overseas to consult on pool disinfection issues. Prior to working in the private sector, Rivera performed security assessments as part of her role as a biosecurity analyst at Sandia National Laboratories. She has been a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee since September 2007.
- Consumer Product Safety Commission, Pool or Spa Submersion: Estimated Injuries and Reported Fatalities, 2011 Report, May 2011. Available from URL: http://www.cpsc.gov
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 20, 2011, 60(19); 605.; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 4, 2004, 53(21); 447-452
- Present P. Child drowning study. A report on the epidemiology of drowning in residential pools to children under age five. Washington (DC): Consumer Product Safety Commission (US); 1987.
- U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Safety barrier guidelines for home pools [online]. [cited 2011 July 5]. Available from URL: http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/pool.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Unintentional Drowning Fact Sheet and references therein. http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html
About the author
Dr. Susan Rivera is the Manager of Applications at MIOX Corporation (www.miox.com). She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Utah and a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) certification from the National Swimming Pool Foundation. Rivera assists customers with pool disinfection management and has traveled overseas to consult on pool disinfection issues. Prior to working in the private sector, Rivera performed security assessments as part of her role as a biosecurity analyst at Sandia National Laboratories. She has been a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee since September 2007.
There are several agencies promoting awareness of pool and spa safety issues. These resources provide a wealth of information for both residential and public pool users. The more information you have, the better prepared you are to help save a life.
Since 1965, the National Swimming Pool Foundation® (NSPF®), has focused on creating healthy pools and healthy bodies by attracting more people to safer aquatic environments. The Foundation’s mission is to encourage healthier living through aquatic education and research. In response to recent legislation, NSPF also offers a free course, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act Online Course. http://www.safekids.orgwww.nspf.org
The National Drowning Prevention Alliance, whose mission is to be a catalyst in drowning prevention, serves as a partner in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) Pool Safely Campaign, along with USA Safe Kids and other national safety organizations. http://ndpa.org/home/
The CPSC’s Pool Safely campaign urges parents and children to protect themselves in and around pools and spas by practicing as many water safety steps as possible. Adding an extra safety step can make all the difference. You can never know which safety step can save a life — until it does. www.poolsafely.gov/
Safe Kids USA with support from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is coordinating a national public education effort to raise awareness with parents and caregivers about water safety for children and help prevent drowning and entrapment in pools and spas. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4. www.safekids.org
Pool Safely Campaign Launch
CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum and Olympian Janet Evans helped the Pool Safely campaign kick off the 2011 summer swim season at an event in Chula Vista, California, on May 25. More events and partner activities are planned throughout the summer and fall.
Children’s Safety Zone collaborates with local fire departments, hospitals and media to gather statistics and stories on water related incidents and fatalities in Arizona. www.childrensafetyzone.com/go/http://www.childrensafetyzone.com/go/