Pool safety goes beyond water chemistry
JANESVILLE--John Murphy's family knows firsthand the importance of swimming pool safety and routine inspections.
His wife and all four of their daughters were at a pool when one of the girls, Mary Alice, was thrust to the bottom of the deep end by electricity seeping into the water.
Other swimmers in the shallow end escaped, but Mary Alice, who was 13 at the time, went straight to the bottom of 12 feet of water on that June night 10 years ago.
“As the current became stronger, I was thrown off of the ladder into the water,” Mary Alice Murphy wrote in a school report that her sister compiled about pool safety. “I could neither move nor make a sound. My eyesight became blurred and then was gone. I saw only black.
“I thought I was going to die. I was dying.”
Nobody could jump in to save her until the main power switch was shut off, and after four minutes underwater, she was pulled unconscious from the pool. She was revived on the pool deck and today suffers from muscle aches and breathing issues, her father said.
But she's alive, he said, and his family hopes their story helps others by increasing pool safety awareness and legislation through a campaign they call "P.S. (Pool Safety) Don't Be Shocked…By an Unsafe Swimming Environment."
“People don't see it as a major concern—there's other safety issues that kind of rise to the top,” he said. “People don't really think in terms of pool safety, and we just think it's a very, very important issue.”
The potential for injury is not lost on Janis Baumann and Adam Elmer, Rock County Health Department certified pool operators who conduct routine inspections on the county's 67 licensed pools and whirlpools.
The overall conditions of area pools are good, they said, and thanks to an increase in inspections in recent years, violations across several categories have dropped.
“We saw a need for it,” Elmer said. “There were reoccurring violations, and we thought if we were out there a little more often, we could address them.”
The number of violations in eight inspection categories improved between 15 to 80 percent from 2011 to 2012, while only four categories saw a decrease between 14 and 44 percent, according to health department data.
During the recent week of 90-plus temperatures and high humidity, a Gazette reporter and photographer accompanied Elmer and Baumann on a visit to Janesville's Rockport Pool for its July water chemistry test.
Swimmers watched them scoop up water samples, which changed color as drops were added to test the chlorine, pH level and other chemistry. Despite high swimmer volumes, tests of the swimming, diving and wading pools turned out normal.
County officials test the water chemistry of outdoor pools every month they're open, which at some campgrounds can be anywhere from April to October.
One of the two full inspections for outdoor pools in June and August is unannounced, while the other is scheduled to make sure all of the stakeholders and pool operators are there so health officials can do hands-on training, if needed.
“If you're standing on the deck and you look down at the main drain, and it's too cloudy, it's closed,” Baumann said. “You couldn't see a person down there struggling.”
The department has closed pools because of cloudy water, she said, though as of mid-July, that had yet to happen this summer. It's not “too uncommon” for a pool to be closed, usually for a chemical imbalance, Elmer said.
Operators are supposed to check the water in a pool twice a day and four times a day for a hot tub, unless they have a system that does continuous monitoring. The balance can change quickly, sometimes because the chlorinator stops working.
Showering before swimming is “very” important, but the reality is most people don't, Baumann said.
“Places that do require showering—the schools—their chemistry is perfect,” she said. “They just don't have the gunk.”
Remaining in compliance with local and state regulations goes beyond what's in the water. Inspectors check things such as life-saving equipment, a working landline phone, clear depth markings, the height of fences and self-closing latches, as well as lifeguard requirements.
One lifeguard is required for a pool more than 2,000-square-feet in surface area, with the numbers increasing with pool size. Rockport, for example, requires three, but the pool usually has five, inspectors said.
The main thing inspectors look for, Baumann said, is having many steps in place to deal with problems.
“The more you have, the less chance you're going to have,” she said. “When that breaks down, that's when you start to see problems.”
Some violations associated with normal maintenance in recent years might be an indication of the economy, said Tim Banwell, environmental health director at the health department.
Often, pools are just an extra amenity at a hotel to get people to stay there, he said.
“They don't have as big of importance on their pool as someone like an aquatic center,” he said.
Pool maintenance is a lot of work, and one person who is stretched too thin often is responsible, Elmer said.
Campgrounds and hotels/motels tend to have the most violations, officials said. Anywhere that has staff turnover can be an issue, Baumann said, as opposed to a place such as a school where the same person is contracted for a long time.
A county analysis done 10 years ago showed hotel/motels, athletic and country clubs and campgrounds had the most violations, though health officials did not have an updated analysis.
Inspectors cringe when they encounter a strong smell at a pool that most people think is chlorine. That strong smell is actually bad because it's a sign contaminants have eaten up the chlorine to create a byproduct called chloramines.
“You're not supposed to smell a good-balanced pool,” Baumann said.
One of the biggest things to remember is lifeguards are not babysitters, she said. She's heard horror stories and witnessed parents at pools, leaving her to applaud the work and responsibility of lifeguards, most of whom are teenagers or young adult college students.
Baumann makes her son take potty breaks “because otherwise they get so excited,” she said laughing.
Know your child and use swim diapers, she said. Once in a while, she'll see a child with a diaper ready to explode, which is tough because lifeguards have lifesaving duties, not diaper duties.
Toddlers should be kept within arms reach, Banwell said. When people start sinking, they go quietly to the bottom, not splashing loudly like people might think, he said.
Make sure the water is clear and sparkling, Elmer said. If it has a dull look, it might indicate problems.
If you see an issue, speak up, the health officials said, and users can always ask to see inspection reports.