When Push Comes To Pools

Phoenix is in the clutches of the worst epidemic of backyard drownings since recordkeeping began, but even that's not enough, apparently, to overcome City Hall's reluctance to adopt mandatory safety regulations.

In fact, anti-regulatory sentiment is adamant inside City Hall, judging from the bureaucrats' reaction to proposals to require pool fences, alarms and covers for backyard pools. "It is staff's opinion that some steps which have been suggested would not be effective in stopping drownings and that other widely discussed measures are too extreme to be tolerated by the community," says a June 27 staff memo to Deputy City Manager Ray Bladine.

The proposed restrictions were among several safety recommendations gingerly advanced by Phoenix fire officials after a spate of recent drownings left them so heartsick some were actually fighting back tears during public briefings. But other city staff members convinced the Phoenix City Council two weeks ago to reject any increase in mandatory safety measures in favor of relying solely on the fire department's "Just a Few Seconds" public-education campaign. (Fire officials, however, point out that they don't make policy decisions; that's up to the council.)

Well, mandatory safety measures may be too extreme for Phoenix, which leads the country in its rate of drowned children, but they evidently aren't for at least two other major Sun Belt cities and, perhaps more significantly, for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) believe pool barriers are so important they would like to see such measures become mandatory nationwide within the next two years. The agency is organizing a major campaign to push the issue, including sponsorship of a model ordinance to be included in the Uniform Building Code, the standard on which Phoenix and most other U.S. cities base their own local building codes. In Phoenix's case, the city would have to adopt the measure for it to take effect.

Los Angeles and Dallas already have adopted mandatory pool fencing, says Lee Baxter, CPSC regional director in San Francisco. The Contra Costa County government, near San Francisco, has adopted similar restrictions, he adds.

"The [CPSC] staff and commissioners feel very strongly that physical barriers between pool and house provide an important margin of safety," Baxter says. "We don't see it as a cure-all, but it is an important mandatory step. The ordinance we are supporting would make it mandatory for all pools, not just new ones. We have six million pools in existence now, nationwide, and with more than 300 drownings a year, we think it would be unconscionable not to address six million of a product that has such a horrendous impact on so many children per year."

Here's what the Phoenix city staff had to say on the same topic: "There is simply no way for the city to enforce every day how well adults maintain inner-yard fences, gates, door locks or any other physical barrier. . . . The city's best role is to encourage, but not mandate, additional layers of protection."

Baxter disputes that logic, saying, "Our staff's feeling is that generally, the American population will comply once something is law, with or without a major enforcement effort. Most people believe in abiding by the law."

The CPSC estimates that each drowning call costs an average of $25,000, including emergency response expenses usually borne by the public. Each child left brain-damaged by a near-drowning costs an average of a quarter of a million dollars to maintain, the agency estimates. Phoenix fire officials say about 30 percent of the drowning calls they receive result in permanent impairment, but not death, to a child.

The federal agency's perspective is so different from the city's that it almost seems as if the city officials were unaware of the doings at CPSC.

And perhaps they were. "I'm not aware the Consumer Product Safety Commission was thinking about a pool-fencing requirement," Bladine says. "Do you know if it would be fence around the pool itself or just around the yard?" (The proposal calls for fences or other barriers surrounding the pool itself.)

Bladine adds, "If we pass a pool-fencing requirement, it will sound good and everyone will think they're protected, but if they go answer the phone and leave their child near the pool, the kid will still perhaps drown. Nothing substitutes for adult supervision."

Baxter says that the CPSC also endorses public education, but that the government's effort can't stop there. "We believe in taking steps that don't rely on human frailty," he says. "There are loopholes in the public-education approach because most childhood drownings involve a very short lapse in adult supervision and such mundane distractions, such as a phone ringing, that the situation is bound to come up again and again. People do answer the phone, they do go to the bathroom. It's not a callous neglect thing.

"You simply can't get around the need for an extra layer of protection by increasing public awareness of the danger these pools present."

Baxter also gives parents more credit for awareness than do most local officials. "We find that public recognition of the danger already is quite high, especially among people who have young kids, as they are tuned into all the dangers a young child might face."

The CPSC's model ordinance for cities is encountering stiff resistance from some portions of the swimming-pool industry, who worry the extra cost will deflate demand for new pools. City officials say the pool industry still opposes mandatory safety measures but now supports voluntary efforts, such as special packages including pool-safety equipment.

Baxter says he also expects grief from people who resent any governmental interference.

"We hear people gripe because a pool fence can cost up to $3,000," he says. "But the people who don't want a $3,000 pool fence are the same people who've spent more than that on a home alarm system. I can't understand the logic. You can replace belongings stolen from your home, but you can never replace a child."

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Kathleen Stanton