Building Safe Summer Memories at Your Backyard Pool

Cherished summer memories are often created right in our own backyards. 
The company of loved ones and creature comforts of lemonade, barbecue, music and a cool refreshing pool are all part of the picture. But for Donald Geurtze, aquatics specialist from the American Red Cross chapter in Albany, safety must always be number one when there’s a backyard pool in that picture because more than 300 children under the age of five drown in residential swimming pools annually, and drowning is the leading cause of death from injury for children 1 to 2 years old and the second leading cause of accidental death for Americans ages 5 to 44.  

“You must be aware of safety issues all around the pool,” says Geurtze, “No one intends to drown.  Accidents happen with people just not being careful or horsing around and falling into pools.  You have to be careful in and around the pool.”  

Public swimming pools in the Hudson Valley

A Constant Presence

Lisa DeFelice of Marlboro fondly remembers her mother being a constant presence at their family’s pool.  She chuckles because, to this day, her now 40-year-old brother returns to their childhood pool still afraid to cross the forbidden “white line” he was trained to avoid as a child.  A self-professed nervous parent of four children (now teenagers and young adults), DeFelice was always vigilant about pool safety. Although there was lots of laughter and fun at the pool, she was tough with rules and had one simple mantra, “You don’t obey, you don’t swim.”  The older ones helped the youngerones; the culture of safety “trickled down.” But that must have been instinctive, DeFelice sheepishly admits, and without fail, she was stationed at her post as “lifeguard-on-duty,” ready to blow her whistle at any infraction.

Stay safe on the road this summer!

Ways to build a culture of backyard pool safety 

1.      Educate your family about home pool risks, maintenance and safety.  All family members and caregivers should learn to swim.  Parents and caregivers should take CPR and First Aid courses.  They are invaluable for drowning accidents, as well as addressing neck and back injuries from diving, wounds, allergic reactions, sunburn and other medical emergencies. 

2.      Be vigilant about supervision and conduct. 

• Designate a responsible adult to be on watch at all times for young children in or near the pool, even if they can swim.  Never rely on inflatable devices like water wings that can break.  Especially vulnerable are kids not tall enough to stand in a pool.  Even if they can stand, they can still come in harm’s way if they become disoriented or panic.  Supervision is critical at large parties when people always assume others are watching young children in the pool. 

• No running or roughhousing on decks.

Keep children away from pool filters; the suction force could injure them.

Never dive into an above-ground pool; check the water depth before plunging into an in-ground pool.  Keep clear of the area near a diving board.

Tina Gross from New Paltz always plays “lifeguard-for-the-day” and enjoys watching her kids have fun.  The DeFelices would allow only one person on the entry ladder at a time, no slippery wet objects on surrounding ceramic tiles, and no misuse of water toys – mom would turn an inflatable boat dangerously positioned upside-down as a hiding spot into a popped inflatable boat.

Water safety is not just for swimming pools!

3.      Maintain a safe environment. 

Under New York State law:

• Residential pools must be completely surrounded by barriers at least 4 feet high obstructing pool access and have suction outlet systems producing circulation throughout the pool and protecting against user entrapment.  

• Gates must be impenetrable to young children, self-closing, self-latching (the latch at least 40 inches above grade) and securely locked with a childproof lock when the pool is not in use or supervised.  New Paltz pool owner Tina Gross has children ages nine, eleven and thirteen who can all swim, but for the safety of any child who might enter the pool area, she uses a master key lock to lock the door leading to the deck area every night and whenever the pool is not in use during the day.

• Pools built or substantially modified after December 14, 2006 must have an approved pool alarm that can detect and give an audible alarm when a child enters the water.  Ms. Gross relies on her battery-operated PoolEye alarm system with a subsurface wave detector; it’s triggered when it detects water movement and a certain wave height.  When the pool is in use, she simply turns the alarm off.   

Install alarms on pool area access doors.

• Keep extension devices such as shepherd's hook, rope, and personal flotation devices available for rescue, and know how to use them. 

• Keep a cordless or cell phone on deck in case of emergency.  Never go indoors to answer the phone leaving children unattended.

Remove all toys from the pool after use; don’t tempt children to reach for them.

Accidents happen. Our health guide has local doctors, specialists & more!

Keep CD players, radios and other electrical devices away from pools or nearby wet surfaces.

Never leave furniture near a fence; a child could use them to climb over the fence and into the pool area.

Residents should also always check their local codes which may be more restrictive.

Geurtze doesn’t dwell upon statistics, other than to say that he would like to see a reduction in drowning deaths.  Instead, he speaks with steadfast dedication about instilling a culture of safety and implementing backyard pool safety methods. 

Anna Chou is a freelance writer and attorney who resides in Westchester County with her husband and two children.