Who doesn’t love the pool? There are definitely lots of reasons why swimming is the second-most popular sport in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s the only sport that actually gets easier and more relaxing the more you do it…unlike winter’s favorite sport, skiing, for example. It’s a great, low-impact way to get your heart rate up, build muscle and lose weight. Plus, it’s super-refreshing on a hot day!
Swimming has a dark side, though, which is why a safe pool will have measures in place like appropriate fences, lifesaving devices, a specific ratio of lifeguards to swimmers. I won’t scare you with alarming statistics, but before you grab your towel and sunscreen, read up on some basics that will enhance your knowledge and appreciation for the pool setting and make your pool experience that much safer.
Rules of the Game
First rule? Listen to the lifeguard’s whistle. That whistle will blow in inclement weather, or when it’s necessary to vacate the area immediately. If the rain impacts visibility – you can’t see clearly to the bottom of the pool – or if there’s thunder, it’s time to leave. According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, the pool should remain closed for half an hour after the last sound of thunder.
Diving is often a no-no. Often, swimmers will underestimate the water depth. The deep end of the typical residential, hotel or smaller pool is too shallow and short for safe diving, and resulting head or neck injuries can be life threatening. If the facility you are visiting does allow for diving, make sure it is always under direct supervision and in the deepest end of the pool.
It’s obvious why running and horseplay are off-limits. These are often accompanies by fighting or hyperactivity, which can easily lead to accidents. Giving rides in the pool that involve putting hands around someone’s neck is extremely dangerous as well; even a baby can choke a mother or sibling with a hold like that.
Swimming alone is extremely dangerous. While that is unlikely to occur in a public facility, it is important to keep in mind, even for experienced swimmers. This is one reason some enforce a “buddy system” – to ensure that each swimmer always has someone specifically looking out for him or her.
And why can’t you eat at the pool? Well, there is certainly a cleanliness factor, but eating around the parameter of the pool can cause choking, a situation that no lifeguard wants to ever imagine.
Some pools don’t allow water wings or rafts, but for those that do, it’s crucial to know the difference between a lifesaving device and a toy. While water wings or inflatable toys may be helpful in the pool, they are never to be relied on the way you would a U.S. Coast Guard approved life preserver.
Swim caps may not be a favorite of some swimmers, but they will prevent clogged drains. A swim cap will also prevent hair from getting in your face while swimming, and will protect the hair from some harmful chemicals that may be present in the water.
Lastly, there are the basic rules that will make the pool an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone. Avoid swimming if you are contagious; that would include anything that others can catch, such as the flu or even warts. No swimmer should ever enter the pool in dirty or sweaty clothes; make sure they are clean. Some facilities will insist on a pre-pool shower to maintain a level of cleanliness in the water. And of course, every baby and toddler should be in a waterproof swim diaper.
Indoor vs. Outdoor: What’s the Difference?
Bill Kirkner serves on the American Red Cross Lifeguarding Sounding Board and is the director of aquatics at the Jewish Community Center of Owings Mills, Maryland, a facility which has both indoor and outdoor pools. “Typically, weather change can make life more difficult with an outdoor pool,” he says. “There’s sun and glare; it can rain. The conditions are more inconsistent.”
The maximum number of people allowed in a pool is regulated by state law, and that number stays the same in an indoor and outdoor pool. What might change is the number of lifeguards on duty, which will increase during popular swimming seasons. “Year round we might have a couple dozen lap swimmers, but in the summer we’ll have a couple hundred kids swimming in middle of the day because they’re out of school. That will change the amount of supervision,” says Bill.
“Indoor pools are more likely to be well controlled for temperature and disinfection. Generally, indoor pools are monitored by computers and are very stable. The water quality is really safe. The problem is, most indoor pools don’t get enough fresh air. A solution is UV radiation. We have UV generators here at the JCC. The Center for Disease Control drafted a document called the Model Aquatic Health Code; the word ‘model’ is key here, because it’s not a law until it’s passed by state legislature. Their recommendation is to put UV systems in indoor pools. This would be a big stainless steel tube with a self-contained, high powered UV light that would kill off the bacteria that lives in the water.
“Outdoor pools, which are exposed to breezes and sunlight, don’t have the same hazards. However, they are open to the world, and anything can end up falling in. A goose flying overhead can result in bacteria in the pool. Outdoor pools have plenty of titanium dioxide, found in sunscreen, which will not hurt you but will make it more difficult for the chlorine to do its job.”
So what does that mean for swimmers? “If you have access to a facility with both indoor and outdoor pools, I’d say seniors, infants, or folks with health issues should choose to spend their time at the indoor pool, where the pool temperature will be more consistent and water quality better. The typical, super-healthy kid can enjoy getting his exercise outside.”
Is there typically a higher level of chlorine in either pool? “That’s really not as important as the amount of chloramines in the water,” says Bill. “They’re what give you dry skin, straw-like hair, red eyes, and cause trouble breathing. That’s a bigger concern in indoor pools because of the lack of air. When I was a kid, in the 80s, I was a competitive swimmer. Back then indoor pools were drafty, because of poor construction. Energy conservation concerns had people sealing them better, which also kept in the bad air components. The chloramines do their job destroying viruses, but they are also heavy and stay near the water surface; they need air to push them away. Parents of babies and elderly swimmers don’t want a breeze to do that job, but swimmers on a national team will want that water at the top to be moved away.” Adding UV systems, fans and changing the disinfection methods are ways to address the problem, but there are no quick solutions. “We’ve been trying to work on the problem for 10 years,” says Bill, “and I mean that on a national level.”
No one really likes the smell of chlorine, nor its tendency to cause red eyes. But it does some important work, killing bacteria and germs and preventing algae from growing over the surface. The amount of chlorine needed in a pool depends on how big it is, what it’s like out (the chlorine level will drop in hot weather), and amount of use, among other factors.
Chlorine levels are regularly tested to ensure that they are at the level recommended by the department of health. So are pH levels, which directly affect chlorine’s germ-killing ability and the comfort of the swimmer. PH levels that are too high will adversely affect the chlorine and irritate swimmers’ eyes and skin.
These levels are meant to be tested on a regular basis, often recorded in a log that is shown to the health department during inspection. Some pools have automatic systems for chlorination and filtration that eliminate the need to constantly add chlorine and clean the pool.
“Automatic systems will save money in the long run,” says Bill, “and they are much safer. Picture a sine curve with big ups and downs. When the chlorine level gets very high and then plummets, bacteria have a chance to grow. Then you have to add more chemicals to compensate for that. With a computer that constantly monitors the process; you won’t have a situation where someone accidentally put five pounds of chlorine in the pool.”
When the chlorine level is not monitored properly, swimmers may find some immediate uncomfortable results. “If your eyes sting or your nose or mouth burns, leave the pool,” says Bill.
Although this will vary by the size and location of the facility, the basic Red Cross requirement is one lifeguard for every 25 swimmers. (For a non-lifeguard, that number would be one for every ten swimmers.) Some parents expect that lifeguard to be everything. What they don’t realize is that each lifeguard is responsible for his or her zone only – and only for kids above the age of six, or whichever age is listed as the minimum. So if a parent walks in with four kids under the age of four, each running in a different direction, the lifeguard is not required or responsible to watch them.
The most important aspect of the job for any lifeguard is constantly remaining on the alert. This means that while it may seem friendly to engage the lifeguard in conversation, it can actually be dangerous.
Some lifeguards are teens as young as 15. Even if they are older, their responsibility is limited to their specific zone. That’s why if there’s a problem, it’s best to discuss it with the head lifeguard, who is more qualified and responsible for the staff and general pool situation.
Perhaps the most crucial way for parents to ensure that children will follow the pool safety rules and obey the lifeguard is to teach by example. Respect the lifeguard and his or her rules, and it’s likely that your children will, too.
One more thing? Do your research before sending your child off into a pool setting on his own. “Mom or dad would find it difficult to supervise two or three kids at once, “says Bill. “Now imagine high school kids, who are not used to disciplining kids, having to watch eight or 10 swimmers. It’s important as a parent to understand how the counselors and lifeguards are trained.”
When it comes to pool safety, it’s never safe to assume anything.
The Residential Pool
Lisa David*’s family was thrilled when they purchased a house with an in-ground pool some years ago.
“My kids were excited, my husband was concerned about maintenance expense, and I was just consumed with worry about the dangers of something like that in our backyard.”
Lisa is now trained in CPR and first aid, as are her husband and two of her children, something she says is “always important, but absolutely necessary in this circumstance.” Every member of her family is a deep-water swimmer.
Owning a pool is a huge responsibility. Here in New York, pool owners are required to install a fence that is at least four feet high, with a self-closing and self-latching gate. Lisa says that her gate is alarmed, as is the back door of her house, which leads to the pool area.
There are various alarms that are available that emit sound when someone enters the pool or pool area. The Davids’ pool has an underwater alarm and a safety cover for when it is not in use, but Lisa says, “The very best advice is to always watch your kids. These are just precautions.”
Although cell phone use is not a good idea while supervising kids in the pool, it is essential that a working phone remains in the area in case of emergency. It is also crucial to remain informed of changing safety standards, which may impact drain covers and other facets of the pool. “Even if you don’t have to make changes by law, you probably want to make sure your pool is safe according to the most current standards. Why take a chance?” asks Lisa.
The Davids share responsibilities such as cleaning the pool and testing the water, but Lisa says that doesn’t detract a bit from their enjoyment during the hot summer months.
Pool time is often the best time of all, and hopefully, you’ll be heading that way soon. There is just one more thing to keep in mind: consideration. Once you’ve mastered the skills to help you get safely across the water, make sure to keep other swimmers in mind. Don’t zigzag across lanes when there are people swimming laps, don’t splash others, and make sure your kids do the same. It’s not very pleasant trying to do the back float when someone at the other end of the pool decides to test out a new water gun – and aims it your way.
With that in mind, here’s to sunny skies and clear blue water. May you have many opportunities to enjoy them safely and happily.