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New safety law pushes pools to retrofit

| Friday, Feb. 13, 2009

The Greensburg YMCA would have installed new drain covers on its main indoor swimming pool months ago, but there's a major roadblock.

Nobody makes covers in the size the YMCA needs to bring its pool into compliance with federal law.

"Unfortunately, like a lot of public pools across the country, we're running into a lot of challenges with our large pool. It's due to the unavailability of approved drain covers from manufacturers," said Rick Nedley, chief executive officer of the YMCA.

Pools need to comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, which requires covers that would prevent people from being caught in a drain's suction apparatus. It went into effect Dec. 19.

The law was named for the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, who died in 2002 when she was sucked into the powerful drain of a spa.

Over the past two decades, 36 people have died in 147 documented entrapment incidents in swimming pools and spas, according to the federal government.

But drain covers that meet the new standards weren't on the market until late last year, and pool operators are having a hard time finding them.

While the law is being enforced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Health sent informational letters to 4,100 pool operators in December.

The department is asking operators to fill out a form indicating how they've complied with the law. The health department will notify the safety commission regarding pools that fail to provide the information, but state inspectors will not enforce the law.

Kathleen Reilly, a spokeswoman for the safety commission, said pools will be closed if they do not comply, but she admitted the commission does not have enough staff to conduct inspections. Instead, the commission is emphasizing retrofitting the riskiest pools -- including wading pools, kiddie pools and the shallow end of larger pools.

Seasonal pools must be in compliance by the time they open.

"Insurance companies will not insure pools that are not in compliance, and pools will open themselves up to lawsuits," Reilly said.

Lou Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Aquatics in Latrobe, has been getting a lot of calls from his more than 150 commercial pool accounts. He estimated 90 percent can't get the required covers.

"We still have a lot of questions regarding some of this," Schmidt said. "For the most part they made a law without any products to get into compliance with the law. I've had drain covers on order for months that I haven't been able to get."

Schmidt believes that if pool operators show an effort to become compliant, the safety commission won't shut them down.

"Our feeling is we should be able to get everybody compliant or show intent to be compliant, but we're at the mercy of manufacturers to get products available," Schmidt said.

The commission is aware of the difficulty in getting the proper equipment.

"We encourage all affected parties to continue to make a good faith effort to come into compliance by pre-purchasing the products you need, hiring a certified, licensed professional to assess your facility, and having an installer at the ready to complete the work," reads an enforcement memo issued in December.

Nedley said the Greensburg YMCA installed the proper equipment in its spa and small pool. He hopes manufacturers will begin to make covers for the large pool's drains.

"I think, because of the demand ... there are some companies that are quickly trying to design this and meet the needs," Nedley said. "Money is no factor here. We've spent quite a few thousands of dollars for what we've done so far."

Michael McElhaney, executive director of the Indiana County YMCA, has been dealing with modifying both its indoor pool and the outdoor pool it operates at Mack Park in Indiana Borough.

McElhaney said plans already were in place to rebuild the outdoor pool at the end of the season. Now, the draining system will be changed before the pool opens. The rest of the work will be done in September.

"It's tougher and it's more expensive, but that's how we have to go about it," McElhaney said.

The YMCA has contracted with an engineer to modify the indoor pool's three drains to comply since nothing being sold will fit.

"We've communicated with the health department we're under contract, we're responding to this, we're not ignoring it," McElhaney said.

Outdoor pools have more time to comply with the new law. Idlewild Park and Soak Zone last year hired an engineer to inspect its drain system and said the equipment will be installed before opening day.

The Crabapple Park and Pool in Sewickley will be inspected in the spring to see what work is needed to comply, said township clerk Susan Leukhardt.

The Franklin Community Park pool in Fayette County is in compliance, said township Supervisor George Bozek. Still, the township has directed its consultant to make sure all laws are adhered to during a major pool renovation set to begin at the end of the summer.

While Trudy Ivory, manager of the Veterans' Memorial Swimming Pool in Greensburg, believes the pool's drains meet federal standards, she's not taking any chances. When the pool is drained in May, an aquatics design company will inspect the drain system.

"I feel what we have is fine to begin with," Ivory said. "We've been aware of that for ages. If there's something that needs to be done, we'll get it done."

Reporter Rick Wills contributed to this story.

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