Pools scramble to meet new regulation

May 27, 2010 3:49:38 PM PDT
Memorial Day Weekend means the opening of many public pools across North Carolina and this year, there's an important safety change all parents need to know about.

A new federal law requires all public pools to have new, safer drain covers. But, many pools are scrambling to meet the deadline.

The Lila Jones Swim Club in Apex was one of dozens of pools in Wake County scrambling to come up to code by opening day.

"There has been a lot of scrambling, mainly on the hotel and apartment complex side of things," said Dan DeLeo with Pool Professionals, a management company which runs 200 pools.

They're installing big dome shaped drain covers to come into compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. It's named after the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker.

At just 7-years-old, she lost her life when she got stuck on the main drain of a spa during a neighborhood party.

Her mother described the horrifying ordeal to ABC News in a Brian Ross investigation.

"I kept pulling at her, never understanding what was holding her down and I couldn't pull her off," said her mother, Nancy Baker. "I opened my eyes underwater and there aren't words to describe what this is like."

The public first became aware of the dangers of pool and spa drain suction in a Wake County case. It was a lawsuit that thrust now former presidential candidate John Edwards into the national spotlight when he won a $25million settlement.

In 1993, 5-year-old Valerie Lakey lost her intestines in an accident at a neighborhood pool. She was stuck on the main drain. The suction was so great it led to the life changing injuries.

"I don't think I came out of being in shock for like 3 years. Every second, I just had to plug along and take one day at a time. What she was going through was so awful," said her mother Sandy Lakey in a 2004 interview.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports at least 50 deaths over the last 20 years involving spa or pool drain suction. It says more people have died, but likely went unreported.

The Baker Act became federal law in 2008. North Carolina is requiring all pools come into compliance this year.

Terry Chappell is one of Wake's 42 pool inspectors who've been slammed by all the calls for last minute inspections. He's looking to make sure pools now have special drains covers as well as either one drain with a vacuum shut off or two main drains.

"They have to have two drains per pump. That's in case someone were laying across one drain the second drain would be able to handle 100 percent of the flow," he explained.

It's cost some pools so much money to make the changes that a handful have opted not to open at all.

"Some of them got off as cheap as $500-$600 probably, and some of them may have spent $15,000. I've heard some of those horror stories," said Chapell.

He remembers the Lakey case.

"We don't want to go through that again, ever. We do not want to see anything like that," he said.

Wake County is also requiring the extra step of having an engineer sign off on the work before inspectors are called out.

Diver Michael Schlink has now brought about 200 pools into compliance. He says he was alarmed by what he saw before the changes.

"You had a lot of pools out there that just weren't safe," he offered.

And if a pool tries to skirt the rules and operate without the changes or a permit?

"We'll close it down immediately," said Chappell.

You can learn more about pool safety and the Baker act here.

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