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Rationale for Fences for Nonresidental Outdoor Swimming Pools, Hot Tubs and Spas

By Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD, exe. director, Recreation Safety Institute

"Children under five years of age have the ability to climb a locked six-foot chain link fence without boosting help." --Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD.

The number of swimming pools in the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent decades, as swimming has become the primary American outdoor recreational activity. Swimming should be safe and should become safer. As the number of at-risk population increases the fatality and injury rate for swimming incidents is declining.

An Enviable Safety Record

The American Society of Testing and Materials F14 and the efforts of the National Aquatic Coalition, various public health agencies, school and colleges, the American Red Cross, YMWCA and YWCA, the National Safety Council, pool dealers and installers (represented by the International Pool and Spa Professionals Association) and the International Aquatic Foundation are responsible for this enviable safety record.

Through the work of these agencies and others, millions have been taught water safety skills and the swimming environment, pools in particular, has become increasingly safe. Still, there remains a troubling number of drownings associated with wandering youngsters gaining access to residential and nonresidential swimming pools. When the statistics and circumstances surrounding such injuries and fatalities are reviewed suggestions become apparent for reducing this number. An overview of swimming safety and other statistics serve to place the drowning data in appropriate perspective.

Pool Construction Booming

During this past decade, Americans built millions of swimming pools. (Editor's note: Oregon, for example, a state that doesn't jump to mind when talking about pool construction, has over 3,000 public pools.) Of these millions of pools, 76% were residential pools and the remaining 24% were pools at apartment complexes, condominium and neighborhood associations, lodging facilities, schools, youth camps, municipalities and recreation districts.

It has become apparent through study of residential and nonresidential public swimming pool accident records kept by municipalities, research by the National Spa and Pool Institute, statistics by NEISS (National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) and the National Safety Council Accident Data Book, that the number of drowning deaths in swimming pools has stayed relatively constant despite increased population exposure to swimming pools. However, one incident is one to many.

Compared to many other activities and hazards swimming pools are not safe. While drownings from any cause show a significant fatality and injury rate, non residential pool drownings are but a small fraction or less than five percent of that number. The majority of drowning incidents, usually about two-thirds in any given year, have been identified as nonswimming fatalities, i.e., persons falling into the water from docks, bridges, shores, etc., transportation accidents, recreational boating, fishing, ship repair work, bathroom accidents and so on.

Nonresidential Pool Deaths

This increasing safety record is broken by a small, but significant residual of swimming pool deaths in nonresidential pools. Children and teenagers are the main victims. They drown after climbing over or under walls and shrubs or going through or around poorly maintained fences, walls, gates and doors. Such incidents have attracted the attention of government officials, legislators, and swimming pool industry representatives.

Kids breaching a short-gated pool. (Editor's note: At my high school, I used to climb the pool's 10-ft. (or was it 12-ft.?) chain-link fence for midnight swims.)

One statistic shows that pool fences breached in 83 of 88 pool accident cases involved 41 "climb-overs," 20 open gate cases and 22 through or under the fence incidents. Fifty of the cases occurred in public or semi-public pools and 33 in residential pools. Eighteen of these accidents involved females and 65 involved males. Seventeen of the 24 fences where over four feet high. Children under five years of age have the ability to climb a locked six-foot chain link fence without boosting help. One newspaper account reports a two-year old child scaling a six-foot chain link fence. An eleven-foot chain link fence is within the climbing range of a 13 year old. A 17 year old is reported to have scaled a six-foot chain link fence protected by barbed wire to enter a municipal pool after hours.

A detailed analysis of 546 drowning and near drowning incidents, though decades old, was undertaken to determine how, where, and to whom these accidents occurred. Placed in the context of the growing popularity of swimming as an outdoor recreational activity, swimming was shown to be remarkably safe.

The Primary Issue

The effectiveness of access barriers is the primary issue. Positive studies on fence size by CPSC and their epidemiological data suggest that an eight-foot height and 2 1/4” mesh reduces penetration.

The existing data does provide strong evidence in favor of well designed, installed and maintained nonresidential swimming pool fences, gates and similar barriers. It is likely that the vast majority of ineffective swimming pool barriers consists of climbable chain link or squeeze through picket fencing. Such materials can be breached by determined two-year olds and even barbed wire cannot prevent teenage penetration. However, the nature of the potential assault is known. Public, club, condo and apartment pools are approached with fatal consequences. For an older child, a climbable or scalable fence or wall, regardless of height, is primarily a psychological barrier. The fact that the observed majority of incidents involving older children were associated with municipal and other public pools indicates that these are viewed as more attractive to gain access and for mischief. The thrill of obtaining unauthorized access to a residential pool is less because it is easier (the barriers are less formidable) and because the authority being violated is usually of lower stature.

Unclimable Fences

The nature of the attack and the determination and sophistication of the attacker of a public swimming pool implies that significantly formidable barriers will be required if unauthorized access is to be effectively denied. The data showed that older children and adults are involved in penetration incidents for this class of pool. Ladders and wire cutters are used and even barbed wire topped chain link is vulnerable to climb-overs. Certainly, any public facility with gaps in fences, open doors or gates, inadequate locks, loose fasteners, inadequate spaces in gates etc., invites trespass and eventual tragedy. Unclimbable fences and walls, sophisticated alarm systems, security lights, periodic patrols, good locks and hardware and other similar measures are the only procedures that will really work to reduce this class of accident. Side benefits should include reduced vandalism losses.

The data examined in the case noted clearly support recommendations by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the National Spa and Pool Institute, the ASTM F-14 Committee and others that all pools must be adequately fenced or otherwise protected from unsupervised access. The least culpable and most vulnerable accident victims are the ones most easily protected by fences and child resistant latches and locks. Common sense and good maintenance will provide additional measures of protection.

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December 8, 2019, 7:53 am PDT

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