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Posted at 2:17 PM ET, 06/ 8/2009

Staying Safe in the Pool

By Stephen Stromberg

By H. Briggs Bedigian
Owings Mills, Md.

After Memorial Day, many Washington area parents breathe a sigh of relief as pools are open and their children have a safe place to spend a summer day. Or at least that is what the Freed family of Davidsonville, Md., thought.

On June 22, 2006, Debbie Freed dropped her 5-year-old son, Connor, off with a family friend, who took him to the Crofton Country Club to enjoy a day at the pool. At some point during the day, Connor took off his life vest for a trip to the bathroom. A short while later, Connor was found floating in the pool unconscious. Even though he was rushed by ambulance to the Anne Arundel County Medical Center, sadly, it was too late.

Four lifeguards had been on duty at the Crofton Country Club pool. However, only one lifeguard, a 16-year-old with just three weeks of experience, was actually watching the pool. Connor had been floating face-down unnoticed under an unoccupied lifeguard stand. It took only three minutes of this negligence to take his life.

Connor's tragic death was not an anomaly. Almost one in five drownings take place with a lifeguard present. Too often, the lifeguard is poorly trained, inexperienced, overburdened or easily distracted. Every day in the United States, five children find themselves at risk of drowning after entering a pool unsupervised. Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children 14 and younger. In 18 states, it is the main cause of death. And almost two-thirds of the children who drown are younger than 4.

Drowning can occur in only one inch of water. After two minutes, a child will lose consciousness, with irreversible brain damage occurring after four minutes. Statistics reveal that minority children are particularly at risk: African Americans are three times as likely to drown as whites the same age because of a lack of swimming lessons.

But it's not just the water in the pool that can be deadly. Drains, with powerful suction forces, are particularly lethal. In December 2007, Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker law, which mandates safety covers and shut-off valves for public pool drains in the United States. But even with the Baker law, a recent investigation by ABC News found that three-quarters of the drains in public pools are still not in compliance. At least 35 children have died in pool drain accidents since 1984, and more than 100 have been seriously injured.

In Maryland, the Connor Bill, named for Connor Freed and introduced by Del. James King (R-Gambrills), should be passed. It calls for all public pools of 2,500 square feet or more to have at least two lifeguards on duty at all times. Other states are recognizing the danger and stepping up enforcement, including criminal charges. In Connecticut, second-degree manslaughter charges were filed against the president of a company for the death of a 6-year-old who drowned as his arm was sucked down a drain. The company, Shoreline Pools, allegedly failed to install safeguard devices required by Connecticut building codes. The protective grate for the drain was found at the bottom of the pool.

Maryland should rise to the standards of other states to protect its children from a tragic, and wholly preventable, pool drowning. When a swimming pool can be a death trap, it is more important to protect the children than the checkbook.

The writer, a lawyer, represented the Freed family in a lawsuit against the Hunt Valley-based company that managed the Crofton Country Club pool.

By Stephen Stromberg  | June 8, 2009; 2:17 PM ET
Categories:  recreation  
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The death of Connor Freed is tragic, and my heart aches for his family. But in my opinion, it is the "family friend" who is responsible. Yes, the other lifeguards should have been watchful; yes, having only an inexperienced 16 year old lifeguard actively on duty is negligent and extremely stupid. But Debbie Freed entrusted her son to a family friend. Where was the family friend when Connor took off his life vest to go the bathroom? Where was the family friend when Connor returned from the bathroom and, clearly, headed directly to the pool without putting on the life vest again?

Will this legislation make pools safer? Maybe, for those that abide by the laws. Clearly, in the case of the laws about pool drains, many companies don't abide by the laws. What the laws do, then, is make liability clear so that grieving families can at least sue irresponsible and negligent entities and, it is to be hoped, put them out of business so that they don't have future opportunities to be negligent.

Posted by: vklip | June 9, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

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