A residential pool can be a source of beauty, a center for fun, and a valuable tool for health. However, it can also be extremely dangerous: drowning is the second most common cause of death among children ages 1-4, and most of those deaths happen in residential pools.(1) Backyard pool safety is no joke! If you have your own small children, or your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or other small children visit your home, safety must be a priority. If you have (or are considering getting) a pool, we’ve compiled the best information available to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
Accidents Happen Quickly
Accidents can happen so quickly. One of our co-workers here at Underwater Audio had a near-miss with her 3-year-old son while visiting her sister in Arizona just last month. In her words:
Yesterday the kids were all playing upstairs with their cousins while my sister and I were chilling and chatting on the couch. Suddenly Hollyn comes in from the backyard (wait, what?) and says “Kieran fell in the pool but the grownups got him out.” Jenny and I said, “What?” She repeated the story and we leapt off the couch. We rushed outside and sure enough, around the corner came the two gardeners, one carrying Kieran wrapped in a towel and the other soaking wet from head to foot!
The gardeners just happened to be there on a Sunday finishing up some things, and if they hadn’t been there, I literally and undoubtedly would have lost Kieran yesterday. It’s been a terrifying idea, to say the least.
Bear in mind that incidents like this one don’t even make it to the statistics. You can avoid drowning scares by being prepared and educated. Regardless of whether you personally have children, as a pool owner, you need to know what protection is required in your area, determine what other safety measures fit your situation, and educate yourself so that you can respond quickly and prevent tragedy.
Layers of protection
No one type of prevention is going to cover every possible scenario, and the more guards you have, the more chances you’ll have to prevent a drowning. Multiple safety barriers, alarms, and emergency response skills are all important elements in making your pool a safe environment.
Physical barriers such as walls, fences, and gates are a vital – and required – part of owning a private pool. Protect your pool from intruders, yourself from liability, and your loved ones from harm by maintaining a secure perimeter around your pool.
For a thorough overview of the recommended guidelines for pool safety barriers, see Safety Barrier Guidelines for Residential Pools.
Many locations require fencing around pools. The CDC recommends a minimum height of 4 feet (about 1.25 meters) and allows a residence to serve as a fourth side. In this case, any doors and windows into the fenced area are considered entry points. As such, they should be fitted with childproofing features such as safety latches and alarms.
An isolation fence surrounds the pool on all sides, without using a dwelling as one of the sides. This protects household children and pets as well as neighbors.A very popular variety of isolation fence is a removable mesh system that surrounds the pool, doesn’t provide footholds for children, has no dangerous gaps when properly installed, and can be taken down completely, e.g. for pool parties or when small children have grown. Small holes are drilled into the cement surrounding the pool, and spikes at the base of mesh panels are inserted. Bear in mind that here, too, a self-closing, self-latching childproof gate is recommended.
Jenny, our coworker’s sister from the story above, has the required safety features for her backyard pool, including a backyard fence with the house as the fourth side, and a top-of-the-door safety latch for the door to the backyard. The safety latch is easy to forget about, however, and her yard is small enough that it would be difficult to install a secondary isolation fence. Her own children are old enough and competent-enough swimmers that she doesn’t feel the need for a bulky isolation fence at all times. In situations like these, there are other options that, when used alone or with a fence, add yet another potentially life saving layer of protection.
There are several pros and cons to automatic safety covers. On the one hand, the mechanics largely limit them to rectangular pools; they can be expensive; and while several color options may be available, it’s not going to be as pretty as the surface of the water. A pump may be required to keep water from pooling on the surface – just a few inches of water can be a drowning risk.
On the other hand, when installed and used properly, they are safe, easy to use, and keep the water clean by preventing debris from getting into the water. They also reduce evaporation, maintain the temperature of the water, reduce the time the circulation system runs, and lower your need for chemicals. Make sure the cover is ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) approved.
Safety nets are set up or removed manually in a matter of minutes. While they do require some additional effort (“hopping in the pool” takes a good 5 minutes longer, and you need to spend the time putting things back together when you’re done) they also have a very good safety record when used properly. They also have the advantage of fitting pools with irregular shapes, allow the surface of the water to remain visible, and don’t collect puddles of water (eliminating the need for a cover pump).
Alarms should be loud enough to be heard from inside or outside the house. While they probably won’t slow a child down, they can provide invaluable advance notice that someone isn’t where they ought to be. Precious seconds can be saved in getting to a drowning child, seconds that can make the difference between complete recovery and brain damage or death.
It’s important that you do your research first: for example, a surface wave detector isn’t the best choice for a windy area or a pool with a waterfall feature. Alarms may use infrared, sonar, motion detection, etc. Some float on top, others are immersed. There are designs specific to the size and type of pool. Try to find alarms that best suit your situation and needs.
This review site has an excellent overview of some of the best options available (Be sure to scroll down to read their summary of what to look for in a pool alarm.):
Displacement alarms alert you when something around 15 lbs or larger enters your pool, making them a great option for those more worried about small children or pets. Some varieties use an infrared grid, others detect wave motion on the surface, such as the buoy pictured above: Pool Guard Safety Buoy.
Personal Immersion Detectors
This is a very interesting option, especially if you are worried about pets or the occasional visiting toddler. Wrist bands or collars set off an alert when they come in contact with your pool. From the image above: Safety Turtle.
Gate and Door Alarms
As mentioned, door alarms are frequently required when the house is part of the barrier. My sister-in-law, for example, has a chime set on her back door that’s loud enough to be heard throughout her house – but pleasant enough that they aren’t tempted to disable it. Many models, like this one, have an adult bypass buttons, so that the alarm only sounds when the button isn’t pressed: Techko Safe Pool Alarm.
Education: key Line of Defense
One of the most important things you can do to prevent death or injury is gain a solid knowledge base.
Being able to swim is crucial if you own a pool. Even if you’ve learned in the past, it never hurts to take a refresher course once in a while. Never swim (or allow your guests to swim) while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Make sure to take a general first aid/CPR class. If there is ANY chance children will be using your pool, make sure children are covered as well.
Learn the safety regulations and recommendations for your pool and understand how to maintain it. This should include chemical testing and using appropriate drain covers that prevent hair and clothing from becoming caught. You should also own and know how to use appropriate safety equipment, such as life rings, floats, and reaching tools.
Keeping a phone near the pool can be life-saving in an emergency, and it’s a good idea to keep emergency numbers posted clearly.
In drowning injuries and deaths, seconds matter! Learn how to respond in an emergency. Some key points:
- When a child is missing, look in the water first
- Learn how to safely retrieve someone from the water
- Know when and what number to call in an emergency
Make sure everyone in the household knows how to swim. Start age-appropriate swimming classes as soon as possible, and if there’s an older non-swimmer, it’s never too late to learn. Also, it’s best to make sure you have a plan of response in case of an emergency that everyone is aware of. Practice it like you would a fire drill with your family.
Set pool rules, post and enforce them. These could include:
- Never swim alone
- No swimming while impaired by drugs or alcohol
- No playing near drains
- No running
- Children under 15 must be supervised by an adult
- Put pool toys and equipment away after use
If there are any non-swimmers visiting your pool, make sure they use appropriate precautions, such as using a US Coast Guard-approved life vest.
In the United States, the American Red Cross is a great educational resource. The Red Cross provides water orientation, swimming, first aid, and CPR courses in many locations. Additionally, they offer a 2-hour online course called Home Pool Essentials. This course provides a thorough guide to how to safely use and maintain your residential pool.
And, from our own blog, here are a few resources that might help you get started on getting yourself and your family ready for the pool:
A few Basic Safety Reminders
If you own a home pool or hot tub, keep appropriate safety equipment close to the pool:
- Floats or rings
- Reaching or throwing equipment
- Phone and emergency numbers
- Life jackets/vests
- First aid kit
Use US Coast Guard-approved life jackets/vests. Throw away torn, damaged life vests.
Toys and pool equipment can be a draw to young children. Keep toys not in use put away and out of sight.
Keep gates locked, and for above-ground pools, remove or fully block access ladders when not in use.
Finally, here are some other great resources we found. Plan and prepare, and you’ll be able to fully enjoy using your pool with confidence!
First, a reminder: Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning
From Pool Safely, itself a great source of information and resources, this video provides a catchy song to help kids easily remember pool safety rules:
Red Cross recommended pool safety guidelines: http://www.redcross.org/get-help/prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety/home-pool-safety
More general water safety guidelines: http://www.redcross.org/get-help/prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety
How to Plan for the Unexpected: Preventing Child Drownings. This is an excellent resource with detailed information to help you improve the safety of your pool: https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/359.pdf
The childproofing section of this CDC website also has great, detailed information: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/publications/books/housing/cha14.htm