As Public Pools Fill Up, Here Are 4 Ways for Municipalities to Keep Swimmers Safe This Summer

Safety risks abound at crowded public pools, but they can be mitigated through simple steps like training and supervision.
By: | July 2, 2019

Millions of Americans flock to public swimming pools every year during the hot summer months. While most public pools are relatively safe thanks to the benefit of many eyes, municipalities still assume lots of liability for the lives of swimmers.

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Drownings are more likely to happen at private pools or in open water, but poor operation or supervision of a public pool can nonetheless result in injury or death. In 1999, a Chicago family sued the Calumet Park District after their 10-year-old son drowned in a public pool, alleging that lifeguards were poorly trained and incompetent. More recently in 2017, parents of an 8-year-old boy sued Knoebel’s Amusement Resort for $50,000 after their son was found dead in one of the park’s pools.

According to Bob Marinelli, risk control manager at Trident Public Risk Solutions, most of the general liability exposures faced by public pools can be mitigated through proper training and supervision of all operations.

“Standards of operation for public pools are often laid out by state law. But it’s up to the municipalities running the pools to enforce those standards,” Marinelli said.

Here are the key risk management steps public entities should take to keep swimmers safe at public pools this summer:

1. Hire enough lifeguards to handle high volume.

Not every state requires public pools to have lifeguards on duty, but to minimize risk, “I would try to control everything that can be under my control, and that includes asking town council for the discretionary funds to hire lifeguards,” Marinelli said.

The American Red Cross recommends one lifeguard on duty for every 25 swimmers.

When the number of pool visitors peaks during the hottest months, it can be difficult for supervisors to maintain this ratio. Pool operators should know how many swimmers can safely be in the pool at one time, which will vary by the size of the pool. Both enforcing this limit and staffing enough lifeguards to cover the maximum capacity that the pool can handle are key.

“Lifeguards definitely need to communicate loudly, by using a bullhorn for example, to get people out of the water if it’s becoming too crowded,” Marinelli said.

2. Vet lifeguards for experience and maturity.

Many lifeguards are high school and college students home for the summer. Though most employees take their responsibilities seriously, “younger people don’t always feel empowered to enforce the rules as they should,” Marinelli said.

This was the case in the drowning death of a 15-year-old boy  who died swimming in a lake at summer football camp. The lifeguard on duty – likely not much older than the campers themselves — allowed swimmers into a restricted part of the lake, and did not act immediately when the boy called out for help. While this did not take place in a public pool, it does highlight the risks associated with hiring inexperienced lifeguards.

Failure to enforce “no diving” rules in shallow ends of the pool could also result in severe injury or death, and this risk extends to pool staff as well as patrons. In one instance, a lifeguard broke his neck after diving into four feet of water and became a paraplegic. For the public entity operating the pool, this injury will be a lifelong workers’ comp claim.

Proper training and enforcement of safety standards can help to avoid these scenarios.

3. Train and retrain for proper pool maintenance.

Poor pool maintenance can have health consequences ranging from respiratory problems to infections. The wrong balance of chemicals can allow harmful bacteria to build up in the water, or emit fumes that cause breathing problems for swimmers.

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Chemical balance also treats cloudiness and creates better visibility, which is essential so lifeguards on a high perch can see into every corner of the pool. In addition to perfecting chemical treatment, the water itself should be turned over every four to eight hours.

Turnover among pool staff, however, can result in knowledge gaps that lead to mistakes.

“Because the staff is often different year to year, everyone should have an orientation. Training has to be thorough and reinforced all the time,” Marinelli said.

4. Evaluate recreational programs carefully.

Lessons, water aerobics and summer swim leagues are popular public pool attractions, but each introduces its own set of risks. Every program must be run by reputable vendors with relevant training and CPR certification. Every event must also be supervised by pool staff.

Municipalities sponsoring the programs should consider whether they would rather retain the risks of creating and running a program themselves, or transfer some liability to an outside party.

“Pool operators should ask, ‘Do we want to run this program in-house or contract it out?’ A third party should come with their own insurance coverage, which can reduce liability and insurance costs for public entities … assuming the vendor is properly vetted,” Marinelli said. &

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]