For months now, people all around Atlanta have been tossing money in the water because the federal government said they had to.
That's no exaggeration. Late last year, a new law went into effect requiring all public swimming pools, kiddie pools and hot tubs to meet enhanced drain-safety standards —- years after a girl drowned after being caught in a drain's pull. Pool operators who didn't comply faced fines or forced closings. Recreation directors, swim coaches and others who oversee public pools scrambled to find cash and equipment necessary to make their facilities safer.
With summer and the height of swim season upon us, not everyone has managed to do it.
In the metro area, at least one public outdoor pool, in Rockdale County, is closed because it would cost too much to make the pool safer. The state Department of Natural Resources, already strapped for cash, recently announced that it would not open 10 pools around Georgia because the agency couldn't afford the upgrades.
It's not known precisely how many pools in the metro area have complied. The story is the same at the national level. A spokesperson for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Council, the agency enforcing the changes, couldn't say how many pools across the country are up to code.
Locally, many pool operators said they dove into savings accounts to come up with cash for repairs —- in some cases spending thousands of dollars. They also waited for parts to keep operations afloat. None, however, begrudges the costs —- not out loud, at least.
"We knew this was the way to go," said Jim Cyrus, aquatics manager for the Gwinnett Parks & Recreation Department, which spent nearly $20,000 changing grates at nine aquatic centers. "We recognized the gravity of this."
Death spurs changes
In June 2002, 7-year-old Virginia Graeme Baker jumped into an outdoor hot tub. Its drain pulled the 7-year-old to the bottom and didn't let go. By breaking the drain's grate, two men managed to free her, but too late. The little girl, granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III, drowned.
More than five years later, in December 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, or VGBA. It took effect a year later.
The act requires replacing older drain covers with new grates designed to decrease the pull of pumps. The new covers bear a stamp certifying that they meet the new standards.
The law stipulates that some pools may need to make other changes as well. Among them: lowering sump pumps in a pool's floor to reduce suction and placing covers on skimmers, mesh outlets on the sides of pools that keep hair and other material out of pumping systems. Such fixes can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands.
The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Council is authorized to assess fines exceeding $1 million against pool operators who refuse to comply, but the council says that's not its goal.
"We are not trying to penalize people," said council spokesperson Kathleen Reilly. "We are trying to get them on board."
Congress gave the agency $2 million to spend on a public information campaign, and another $2 million for a fund offering grants to underwrite repairs. Most states, including Georgia, have not applied.
No one, she said, is certain how many pools, spas or hot tubs are now in compliance. "You have to realize," she said, "that there are hundreds of thousands of public pools in the country."
'These are my kids'
Poolside at Snellville's W.T. Briscoe Park on a recent day, a lifeguard's whistle trilled. Caden and Gavin Egan tried to look innocent, standing at the water's edge. But Danielle Ciarlo fixed her sons with a no-nonsense look.
"Stop running!" she commanded. They froze —- temporarily. Moments later, Caden, 5, and his 4-year-old brother were in the shallow end, a swirl of arms and legs.
A Snellville resident, Ciarlo said she didn't know the city had spent $2,600 to outfit the pool and an adjacent kiddie splash site with new drain covers.
"That's nothing, compared to what could happen," said Ciarlo, 26.
Cyndee Bonacci, Snellville's director of parks and recreation, reached the same conclusion. "We went ahead and moved forward" with installing new grates, she said. "We wanted to comply."
The Cochise Riverview Club in Atlanta also didn't hesitate when it learned of the new requirements, spending $700 for new drain covers, no questions asked, said the club's Jon Rubel.
"These are my kids, my neighbors' kids," said Rubel, who's overseen the pool for 12 years. "We don't take chances."
Officials in Rockdale County faced a costlier decision. They chose not to open a 75-year-old outdoor pool after learning that safety renovations could cost $100,000.
Instead, Rockdale spent between $4,000 and $6,000 to retrofit an indoor pool and left the outdoor pool dry.
DNR officials made a hard choice, too. They closed 10 pools this season rather than spend $244,000 to meet the new standards. "That's money we simply do not have," DNR spokeswoman Kim Hatcher said. As of today, state-run pools at High Falls, Victoria Bryant and Magnolia Springs state parks and at George T. Bagby, Little Ocmulgee and Red Top Mountain lodges remain open.
Fears and questions
When hundreds of people met last fall at a Gwinnett hotel to learn about the VGBA's impact, the mood, said Jimmy Gisi, executive director of the Georgia Recreation and Park Association, "was like Chicken Little. The sky was falling."
That fear appears to have eased. Gisi, who oversees a nonprofit agency composed of 203 public agencies, businesses and educational institutions, says pool people are more relaxed now. He also knows of only three community pools closed because operators can't afford the changes: the Rockdale pool, plus facilities in Americus and Blakely, south of Atlanta.
Pool repair companies worried that the number would be greater than that. They fretted about not getting parts to cover all their repair orders. They worried that old stock would suddenly be worthless because it didn't bear the required safety stamp.
In some cases, those fears proved well-founded, said Greg Randolph. He's president and CEO of CSD Pools, a Sandy Springs company that has outfitted pools in four states. Operators had to wait for replacements, and some ended up with stock rendered worthless by the changes, he said.
Randolph's company performs the necessary work to bring pools up to VGBA standards, he said —- installing drain covers, skimmer covers, moving piping and more. Most jobs cost between $1,300 and $2,300, he said.
He questions whether some public pools are as safe as their operators claim. He also wonders how well government officials can enforce the act.
In his experience, he said, "No two counties are on the same page with this."
More on pool safety
Complete information about the Pool and Spa Safety Act and other pool safety issues can be found online at www.poolsafety.gov/resources.
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