Is Idaho letting its guard down on pools?

Law doesn't cover safety issues at private facilities; Legislature might revisit that

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJuly 10, 2013 

The original version of this story incorrectly described the reason for the legislation that exempted private swimming pools from state regulations. The 2002 bill was passed at the request of the hospitality industry, which was concerned that hotels and motels would have to hire lifeguards to comply with state law at the time.

Public swimming pools receive an annual health inspection and pool operators must take daily water quality readings and monitor water clarity. They must also maintain log books showing the addition of chlorine and other chemicals.

But for a decade, Idaho law has been silent on private pools, including the one at the West Boise apartment complex where 6-year-old Mohamed Hassan drowned last month.

For many years, swimming pools at hotels and motels, apartment complexes, trailer parks and other businesses were regulated the same as public pools. However, the 2002 Legislature reworded the definition of "public swimming pool" to exclude those facilities. The only rules affecting those pools are building codes regarding initial construction.

"If it's not for the public at large, it's not regulated," said Steve Manning, an injury prevention manager for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Only 100 public pools throughout Idaho receive scrutiny from health officials, Manning said. The rest are on their own.

Former state Sen. Robbi Barrutia, R-Glenns Ferry, sponsored the 2002 change in the law. She said it was passed at the request of the hospitality industry, which was worried that hotels and motels might have to employ lifeguards to meet the law. Most of those businesses do not employ lifeguards and instead place the burden on adult swimmers to keep themselves safe and warn parents to keep an eye on their children who are using the pool.

"I wouldn't think I would put in anything that would have jeopardized swimmer safety," Barrutia said Wednesday.

Democratic Rep. Grant Burgoyne, the current House assistant minority leader, said it might be a good idea for the Legislature to take another look.

"We need to know why children die and what we can do to protect them," said Burgoyne, a Boise attorney who represents District 16, which includes the Collister neighborhood where the boy drowned.

Democratic Rep. Hy Kloc, who also represents District 16, said hotels and motels are able to limit pool access to guests through key cards. It's more problematic at apartment complexes, where it can be harder to keep unaccompanied children and their friends from using pools.

"This is something I want to look into," Kloc said.

A BALANCE OF LIABILITY, BENEFITS

It's unclear how many apartment, motel, hotel and housing association swimming pools exist in Ada County. Neither the county nor the city of Boise maintains lists.

Mohamed left his apartment at the Arbor Crossing Apartments off State Street on June 12 and headed to its pool, which had opened for the season earlier that day. He left on his own, though his mother had asked him to wait for her to take care of her baby so she could accompany him.

Ray Reid, who also lives in the complex, was one of the first adults to reach the pool after being told there was a boy in it. He administered CPR until police and emergency personnel arrived. They were unable to revive him.

Despite the pool opening that day, Reid said the water was murky and it was hard to see Mohamed's body underwater. He also said the latch on the gate to the fenced pool was easily jimmied, and he had seen children open the gate before without a key.

Under the previous regulations, fences and gates admitting swimmers to an apartment complex pool had to meet certain safety standards. Tenants or guests of transient establishments needed a key or a key card to use the pool. That was meant to keep out unsupervised children and outsiders.

Arbor Crossing did not return messages from the Statesman seeking comment.

Lina Casey is the immediate past president of the Idaho Rental Owners and Managers Association. She said apartment owners have to weigh the potential liability and the benefits of having a pool.

Some renters will be drawn to an apartment complex that has a pool. Others might be concerned about the possibility of an accidental drowning and will choose not to rent there when they have young children, she said.

"Anytime you have children and water, there's a chance for an unfortunate accident," she said.

In California, where Reid lived before moving to Idaho, apartment pools are regulated just like public pools. Daily readings of water quality and temperature are required. Pool operators are also required to detail fecal, vomit or blood contaminations and drownings or near-drownings, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Operators must keep the pool clear of trash, scum and other contaminants, including slime and algae.

Oregon and Washington state have similar regulations requiring annual inspection and regular daily monitoring of water conditions. And all three states have laws regulating fences and gates for public pools, including those at apartment complexes and hotels.

Reid and his wife, Heidi, who have taught their three children ages 3 to 14 to swim, were surprised to find out Idaho's laws were so lax.

"Children are naturally attracted to water. There should be greater regulation to ensure they can't access a pool unattended," Heidi Reid said.

John Sowell: 377-6423 Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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