Daily Herald
Paperwork, low resources bog down pool safety fixes in Illinois
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/4/2010 12:00 AM

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The dangers

Here are ways people can be injured or killed by unsafe pool drains.

Entrapment: Swimmers too close to the drain can be sucked against the grate. If their bodies are big enough to completely cover the opening, vacuum pressure can build, making it impossible for submerged swimmers to free themselves and causing them to drown.

Entanglement: Suction ensnares swimmers' long hair in the drain and the grate, which can forcefully slam a swimmer's head into the floor of the pool or cause drowning.

Disembowelment: Rare occurrences when swimmers sit on a drain cover and the suction builds to a point where their intestines are pulled out.

Source: Daily Herald interviews

Second of two parts

While Illinois health officials scramble to get more than 1,000 public pools throughout the state to comply with federal safety rules, another 250 are in limbo, waiting for the state to approve plans for the work.

All those pools are open for business, even though a deadline for meeting the new safety rules passed almost two years ago. One state health official says getting everyone in compliance still could take years.

Some pool operators, like the Glen Ellyn Park District, have done the work they say meets federal standards - but are waiting for the state to verify that and mark them compliant.

The park district spent $65,000 to meet the requirements of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, which is meant to prevent deaths caused when strong suction in pool drains traps swimmers underwater, drowning them.

They even delayed the Sunset Pool opening this year to make sure the work was done, said Dave Scarmardo, the district's superintendent of parks. "The law stated that if you were not compliant, you were not allowed to open."

It's the same story in Lisle, where work done at the Sea Lion Aquatic Park awaits state approval, said Aaron Cerutti, the Lisle Park District's superintendent of parks and facilities.

"We're confident the work we've done will be approved by the state," he said.

Yet, with only 20 inspectors plus some agents from county departments who provide help, and with 1,023 pools that haven't even approached the state yet about how they intend to comply, making sure that all the pools meet safety standards could take years, said Justin DeWitt, administrator of the Illinois Department of Public Health's Swimming Facilities Program.

"The season is so short in Illinois, especially northern Illinois, for us to get out and try to hit all those pools it just takes a little bit of time," DeWitt said.

More stringent regulations added by the state in February confounded matters and slowed the process further, DeWitt said.

He said the state health department - which decided this year to let noncompliant pools open, largely for economic reasons - plans to set a firm deadline for pools to at least get work underway.

The federal law requires domed drain covers that prevent suction entrapments and make it almost impossible for long hair to get ensnared in the drains. Some pools may need to be outfitted with pressure release valves designed to prevent swimmers' bodies becoming vacuum-sealed to drains.

Industry safety groups say 70 people have died and another 150 were injured by such drain entrapments since 1980.

Alex Martinez of St. Charles is among them. Now 19, he was 11 when he was sucked against a drain in the side of the pool at the Wheaton Sports Center. The suction was so strong he could not free himself and he nearly drowned before others noticed his plight and gave aid. That pool is listed as complying with the new law.

Paul Pennington, chairman of the Pool Safety Council, advocates for pool operators to make the safety adjustments. He believes bureaucracy is to blame for the slow going in Illinois.

Unlike other states, Illinois health officials review and approve plans, then inspect and approve the work. The bottleneck can prevent work from getting underway, pool operators say

"I've not heard of engineers having to review every proposal that goes through," Pennington said.

Most states, he said, follow the system used in DuPage County, the only county in the state responsible for its own public pools. DuPage County requires paperwork showing the work is done, then marks a pool compliant and inspects to verify the pool is safe. The county claims to have all but 20 of 619 public pools in compliance, even though it won't begin inspecting until next month to ensure the work was actually done, said Kevin Dixon, director of environmental health services at the DuPage County health agency.

DuPage County also has 27 sanitarians that inspect pools, more than the entire rest of the state.

Finding someone to do the work also causes delays.

"We're just waiting to get the right guy to design it out here because right now they're all swamped," said Tom O'Connell, general manager of the Tennaqua Tennis and Swim Club in Deerfield. "There aren't enough people to do the work."

The federal law has been a boon for Kildeer-based Maverick Pools.

"It's kept us very busy and we've got a lot of work from it," said Maverick Vice President Jim Aird. "But 99 percent of what's out there is safe to begin with."

Jim Lueders is president of Innovative Aquatic Design in Hoffman Estates, a company that specializes in commercial pool facilities. He's also been busy designing fixes for pools. He said the delay in getting pools up to par is due in equal parts to apathy and the state's paperwork backlog.

"We've got another 30 to 40 jobs waiting for a permit right now," he said. "Really the only way they're going to get some of these people to move quicker is to make it so the pools can't open."