Pool Safety Law Looks To Save Toddlers' Lives

Posted on Tuesday, May 07, 2013

By KEN KAYE Staff Writer and Tallahassee Bureau Chief Linda Kleindienst contributed to this report.

Tina Diaz can tell you from personal experience how important a pool fence is to protect children.
In May 1998, she left her 1-year-old daughter Brianna unattended for only a few minutes to take out the garbage. But that was all the time it took for the toddler to crawl into the backyard pool, which had no barriers.

Because Brianna's dad and a police officer performed CPR, the child lived. But she suffered brain damage and lost control of several functions, including digestion and bending her limbs.

"Brianna's been through hell and back," said Diaz, of Lauderhill, a strong supporter of a new state law that requires safety protections around residential swimming pools. The law will take effect on Sunday.

"We pay money every week to have our pools be nice and clean, but we won't spend money for a protective barrier," she said. "But accidents happen with adults, children and animals."

Each year, about 75 children in Florida escape the eye of their guardians, wander into a swimming pool and drown. Most of them are 4 or younger. Four times as many children nearly drown and frequently suffer brain damage.

Public health officials hope the new law will dramatically reduce such tragedies.

On Friday, a North Florida pool installer made an 11th-hour attempt to stop the new law from taking effect, saying it is vague and will cause confusion for builders and contractors.

But a circuit judge in Tallahassee refused to issue the emergency injunction sought by John Salvo, owner of Pensacola Pools. Instead, the judge said he would schedule a hearing within a couple of weeks.

"All the problems you have with the statute you knew a long time ago. Why didn't you file it sooner?" asked Judge Terry Lewis, noting the bill was passed and signed into law last spring. "This can be resolved fairly quickly, but this is just too quickly for my taste."

Under the law, all new residential swimming pools must be built with one of four safety features: A pool barrier fence, a pool cover, exit alarms on all doors and windows with pool access or self-closing, self-latching doors with pool access.

"As far we're concerned, if it saves one child, that's good enough," said Pam Santucci, injury prevention coordinator for the Broward County Health Department. "It's a start."

Depending on which protection is used, the additional cost to a homebuyer would be between $200, say for a cover, and $2,000 or more for an upscale fence. About 25,000 pools are built each year in Florida at an average cost of $25,000.

Santucci, who said 15 children drowned in Broward in 1999, noted that a four-sided fence provides the best guard against a curious toddler.

"It's up and it doesn't require anything on the homeowner's part," she said. "It can't malfunction like an alarm."

She added that a fence is not a substitute for close supervision and "certainly is not foolproof." But she said it should give guardians some peace of mind.

"It's really important that a parent be able to go to sleep at night or take a shower in the middle of the day, knowing their child can't gain access to the swimming pool," she said.

In Palm Beach County, 10 young people drowned in 1999, most of them under 9 years old. Melissa Everts, director for the Drowning Prevention Coalition, said the new law should raise awareness, but she said it is not a cure-all.

"People need to start taking responsibility for the waterways around them," she said.

State Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, sponsored the Preston de Ibern/McKenzie Merriam Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act, named after a near-drowning victim and a child who drowned.

The original version of the bill would have required all existing pools as well as new pools to have fences, but had to be diluted to gain the support of building interests and other state legislators.

Wasserman Schultz said she still is happy with the law and hopes those with existing pools will be motivated to buy additional protections on their own.

"The short-term and long-term goal is to reduce drownings of young children and frail elderly, and to change the horrendous statistic that drowning is the leading cause of death for children under 5 years old," she said.

In the two other states that have passed similar laws, California and Arizona, the number of people who have drowned has been sharply reduced, she said.

Despite the extra safety buffers under the law, a homeowner's insurance rates likely will not be reduced, said Nina Bottcher, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Insurance.

"We're anticipating little impact because most insurers already require some substantive impediment around a pool," she said.

The pool safety act should not hinder pool sales, Florida building industry officials say. Builders in Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties have no objection to the law, said Lisa Maxwell of the Builders Association of South Florida.

"The law's intent is excellent," she said. "Obviously, child safety is at the top of the list for any parent purchasing a home."

In Palm Beach County, homes in unincorporated areas already are required to provide pool safety features. But the safeguards aren't always appreciated, said Whit Ward of the Gold Coast Builders Association.

"Unfortunately, what some people will do is buy the home and take the equipment off after they close," he said.

Tallahassee Bureau Chief Linda Kleindienst contributed to this report.

Ken Kaye can be reached at kkaye@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7911.