Pool Safety Law Has Limited Reach

Times Staff Writer

The near drowning of a 20-month-old Fullerton girl last Friday and the drowning of a 19-month-old Tustin boy on Tuesday again raise an important question: Aren't there laws to safeguard pools to prevent these tragedies?

There are, but they affect only a small percentage of swimming pool owners.

A state law that went into effect in 1998 calls for all new pools to have one of four safety features installed before they are filled. The options include separating the pool from the house with a fence or wall, installing an approved safety cover, putting alarms on house doors leading to the pool, or equipping all doors leading to the pool with a self-closing, self-latching device.

Nothing is required of pools built before 1998, except that a fence encircle the backyard.

Swimming pool industry experts say there are about 1 million backyard pools in California and the 1998 applies to only about 10,000.

Child safety advocates say the state law has undoubtedly saved lives. But with drowning still the No. 1 cause of death among children under 5 in California, they are disturbed by the unwillingness of lawmakers to pass legislation that would close some of the loopholes.

"If I had my way, we'd have that law for every home in this state that has a pool," said Maureen Williams, co-founder of the Drowning Prevention Network of Orange County. "But you meet with a lot of resistance -- the pool builders, the real estate associations. We just don't get it. It's very frustrating for us."

The frustration level got so high during the 1980s in Phoenix, where child-drownings and near-drownings were occurring at alarming rates, that city officials adopted the nation's most restrictive law on pool fencing. It requires all homes to have fences around the pool.

But the Phoenix approach has flaws.

"We don't do at-large inspections in older homes," said Bob Khan, Phoenix's assistant fire chief. "We just don't have the resources. We're too busy putting out fires and going to car accidents."

In California, there have been attempts to put more teeth into the state law. Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McCloud (D-Chino) sponsored a bill last year requiring new pools to have two safety barriers. But the legislation, AB2455, was quickly killed.

"In a perfect world, I'd like to see the pools with layers of protection," said Marcia Kerr, an officer with the U.S. Product Safety Commission, which has jurisdiction over swimming pool safety. "I'd like to see a fence installed, a safety cover and a door alarm on the doors leading out to the pool. If you had all that, and constant adult supervision, I'd be happy."

Kerr, who lives in Lake Forest and who lost a 2-year-old in 1988 to a swimming pool drowning, said the combined cost of installing all of these barriers, about $8,000 to $10,000, pales in comparison with the cost of hospital care for the child who nearly drowns and has life-long developmental problems.

"We're not against supervision alone," Kerr said. "But it's nice to have these safety barriers there to help when there's that lapse in visual contact. Even the best parent loses track of their kids for a second. It's just human nature."

And that's why most prosecutors do not go after parents whose children die from accidental drownings. Only rarely are felony child-endangerment charges filed against parents whose children have drowned, said Orange County Assistant Dist. Atty. Jo Escobar.

"In most drownings, there is no criminal negligence," she said. "People will get involved in things and not look after their children. These incidents simply happen too quickly. There's no way you could look at 12 jurors and say, 'This is a crime.' Most cases are just tragedies that could be prevented by putting up effective barriers. Most people are not perfect 24-7."

Escobar said it is unlikely the district attorney's office would prosecute a case where parents failed to install the proper safety barriers around a swimming pool.

"Is that gross, willful, wanton negligence, not to build a fence?" she asked. "Probably not."

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