Frank Disher, owner of Poolwerx Keller in North Richland Hills, Texas, observed a “throwing up of hands” among pool service professionals throughout his career when it came to the topic of drowning prevention. He attributes that to a frustration within the industry because, regardless of a pool company’s preventative measures, it could still be held liable for homeowner negligence.
But over the last 15 to 20 years, Disher has seen a willingness from pool professionals to have these difficult conversations. “More are getting involved in bringing our industry up to par with other industries in being advocates for the consumer,” he says. “Public opinion is more important to the average business and risk management is being stressed in classes and seminars. When we accept the risk and hold ourselves to higher standards, our products and services are worth more to us and our consumers.”
“[Talking about] drowning had generally been frowned upon in the industry because it was seen as something that hurts business,” says Sai Reddy, CEO and founder of CamerEye, a pool safety company that leverages artificial intelligence to tackle water safety for residential pools. “But there has recently been a drastic change where top pool professionals are embracing the need for water safety, supporting programs like PHTA’s Step Into Swim initiative.”
Jim Ornce, sales and training manager at Pettis Pools in Rochester, New York, says the industry needs “to be more proactive rather than reactive,” when it comes to approaching the topic of drowning prevention with customers. “I think a shift in attitude regarding talking about safety happened as people spent more time researching pool products and services online,” he adds. “The customer became more aware of incidents and safety concerns, which in-turn required our industry to speak [more openly] about it.”
While initial responsibility falls on pool builders, who must meet local code requirements for water safety measures, Reddy says these precautions don’t always remain effective and that service pros must continue to inspect pools for safety, and have frequent conversations with homeowners to prevent tragedy.
“Homeowners often install cheap door alarms or water floaters that have a lot of false alarms to pass inspection, then disable them once inspection is done,” Reddy says. “Then they purchase Ring/Nest cameras for monitoring their backyard and soon learn the motion-based detection doesn’t help either and doesn’t detect distress in the pool, so they end up silencing alerts on their phone due to false alarms.”
When communicating the importance of water safety to customers, Ornce says it’s about more than selling alarms. “Water safety is made of many layers of protection: supervision, education, restriction of access and then alarms,” he says. “Never depend on alarms as the primary level of protection.”
Pettis Pools offers water safety handouts from the PHTA and product manufacturers; Ornce recommends using the resources available to pool pros from the industry: “There’s no need to recreate the wheel.” At Pool School events every Saturday in the summer, Pettis Pools discusses both chemical and water safety. Children who visit the store are offered pool safety coloring pages.
The company has also been a Loop-Loc safety pool cover dealer for decades. “We recommend customers put their cover on when they go on vacation,” Ornce says. “They will have the peace of mind that accidents will not happen at their pool while out of town.”
Ornce also recommends the Loop-Loc Baby-Loc fencing systems for an added layer of protection. “It allows families with small children to section off their pool from the rest of the yard, but it can easily be taken down when entertaining,” he says. “We like that the fence is made of mesh that can be seen through, allowing for supervision.”
Eric Honeyman, owner of Honeyman Pools in Mt. Hope, Kansas, says that common safety concerns he addresses with service customers are associated with diving board or slide damage, loose cover anchors and warped decking that can cause trip hazards. His staff also checks that suction grates are VGB compliant and installed correctly. Honeyman is safety conscious enough that he and his team only take on customers in the winter months that have safety covers on their pools.
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“We have found the only way to truly get the client to understand the severity of safety issues is with a face to face discussion,” Honeyman says. “Showing the client the issues with an explanation as to why should be enough for any client to repair the problem — ‘should’ being the operative word.”
Colin’s Hope, a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas, is dedicated to raising water safety awareness to prevent children from drowning. Executive director Alissa Magrum says one layer of protection is not enough. “We recommend four-sided pool fences and self-closing/latching pool gates, door alarms and locks, pool alarms and pool covers — anything that can help block access to the water,” she says.
Almar/Jackson Pools in Jupiter, Florida, reviews options with homeowners during the design process for automatic pool covers, fencing and alarms, and makes sure all pool equipment is updated during renovations to prevent entrapment. Additionally, vice president Kim Nash says education is vital.
“We stress the importance of water safety measures recommended by our local Drowning Prevention Coalition and local swim schools,” she says. “We always recommend a water watcher during pool use, as drowning can often be silent and easy to miss. We’ve sponsored swim lessons at our local swim school where my own son has attended lessons since he was an infant.”
Last year, Pool Scouts franchisees partnered with Hope Floats Foundation and raised $16,000 for swim lessons for underprivileged children in the markets Pool Scouts serves. This year’s fundraising goal is $20,000, says Pool Scouts CEO Michael Wagner, and the company will be donating $1 for every pool serviced in May.
When Honeyman sees children’s toys in the pool, he takes the face to face a step further. “We talk about swim lessons, gates that latch, auto pool covers and a whistle on a lanyard by the pool [to call for help],” he says. “Then, we talk about swim lessons again. It’s important to me to have a relationship with local swim lesson providers, so I always have a teacher to refer a family to. The most important thing I offer my clients is knowledge.”
While these steps are important for aiding homeowners in keeping their families safe, a pool company must also prepare for litigation as a result of a pool accident. For each line item that has an associated safety warning on Pettis Pools sales invoices, safety information automatically prints on the invoice, and the customer must initial beside it. For example, if a customer orders a pool alarm, the invoice reads: “A pool alarm is only one layer of safety for a swimming pool. 1) Education 2) Supervision 3) Restriction of Entry 4) Pool alarm complies with ASTM F2208. NY’s law requires all swimming pools to have an alarm.”
The team at Poolwerx Keller also has precautions in place. “We strive to do everything according to codes and regulations, and document unsafe conditions when recognized,” Disher says, adding that his company sells and installs safety nets, child fencing and covers in addition to addressing water safety concerns with the homeowner directly. “If a grief-stricken family wishes to sue, our only protection is to not be negligent.”
Documentation is key for Honeyman as well, whose company thoroughly inspects pools at opening, closing and during weekly service to ensure safety compliance. “Document the issues, what the client’s response was, date of repair or refusal to repair and canceled account date,” he says, noting that he cancels a service account if the homeowner won’t make the recommended repairs. “I refuse to have customers sign a waiver of liability, as it can be more of a bad reflection on my company if anything were to occur in an unsafe pool.”
According to the CDC, drowning is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 4. Reddy says pool pros cannot ignore this fact: “Being active and educating their customers not only helps a pool pro stand apart as someone who genuinely cares, but also someone who is up to date on industry standards and does the right thing.”