Virginia Graeme Baker: Sending ripples across the pool industry

by Myles McMorrow, April 18, 2009

 The Virginia Graeme Baker (VGB) Pool and Spa Safety Act, Who She Was and How It Is Sending Ripples Across the Pool Industry Nationwide


Virginia Graeme Baker (VGB) was lovingly known to her friends and family as Graeme (pronounced Graham). The granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, Graeme went with her mother, Nancy, and four sisters to a family friend’s home for a graduation party on June 15, 2002. The focal point of the party was the swimming pool and hot tub

Graeme had worn her swimsuit to the party and jumped into the pool as soon as they arrived. A short time later, Graeme’s older sister ran to her mother and said that Graeme was under water in the hot tub and would not come up. Nancy ran to the hot tub, but could only see a dark figure under the bubbles obscuring the surface.
Nancy jumped into the hot tub and discovered the horrific sight of her daughter’s unconscious body on the bottom. Not realizing that her daughter was trapped underwater by the suction of the whirlpool’s drain, Nancy desperately and unsuccessfully tried to pull her daughter out.
 Two adult men at the party came and helped, finally managing to free Graeme and pulling so hard the drain cover broke in the process. Lifesaving efforts were immediately performed on the little girl, but she couldn’t be revived.
It was a sad day for the Baker family and they did not want to see another child lost in such a horrific traumatic experience as they had lost Virginia Graeme Baker. Nancy Baker took what she had learned and teamed up with Safe Kids USA - a Washington DC nonprofit that helps lobby laws worldwide in the name of child safety. With the help of her family’s Washington contacts and Safe Kids USA a law was passed on December 19, 2007 affecting all commercial pools in the USA and was named after Virginia Graeme Baker and is referred to as the VGB Pool and Spa Safety Act .
Signed by President George W. Bush on December 19, 2007, and went into effect December 19, 2008. It is called the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, This is a federal law for all commercial pools and swim clubs as well as residential pools built after that date to have new drain covers or Safety Vacuum Release Systems (SVRS) installed in all pools to meet the new code to prevent bodily injury and/or death. All covers and SVRS* must meet or exceed the ASME/ANSI A112.19.8-2007 National Standards and ASTM G154 for UV Testing. This is stamped on all compliant systems and the law is regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as well as state and local pool inspectors. A Safety Vacuum Release System works by monitoring the vacuum on the suction side of the pool or spa pump.
When a blockage occurs in the main drain or skimmer a sudden rise in vacuum will cause the SRVS to shut down pump operation and SVRS - SAFETY VACUUM RELEASE SYSTEM FOR POOLSactivate an audible alarm. The pump will remain off with the alarm sounding until the SVRS is manually reset. The bill states that the maximum fine is $1.8 million and for the pool to be closed until compliant with the law. Between 1985 and 2004, 33 deaths were contributed to entrapment from the suction of pool filters.
This has sent ripples in the swimming industry and does not only apply to swim clubs. It is affecting the hotel industry and the medical hydrotherapy sector as well. The problem is that it is difficult to replace a cover or add a SRVS to many older pools. They were built in a time before these products were around. Retrofitting these older pools can be quite costly. Some pools have gotten estimates of over $20,000 to be brought into compliance.
This raises major issues in the aquatics industry and is having an adverse affect not just with the owners of the pools but with the 23 million swimmers six years and older that swim each year according to a USA Swimming pool poll taken nationwide. In the current state of our economy many people in the industry cannot afford these repairs at this time and many cities do not have the money in their budgets to make the repairs. There are thousands of pools that are scheduled to be closed for the summer for this reason.
To put it perspective the city of Philadelphia, PA will only be opening 46 of the total of 73 outdoor pools this summer. Many of the pools closing are because costs are too high for the upgrades to comply with the VGB law. The good news is the cable TV channel A&E is helping to keep the 46 open; originally 63 of the 73 were to close. A&E is giving proceeds from the show Parking Wars in a deal it made with the city for following the parking enforcement officers making a hit realty show. Another example is the city of San Diego, CA. They were about to close the city pools until Aquastar, one of the manufactures of the drains covers based in San Diego, came to the rescue and donated covers for all the pools.
The hotel industry is being hit the hardest with pleasure travel way down in these hard times. Many in smaller cities are closing their pools because they do not have the income to repair and upgrade the swimming pools and spas to the new law. This is giving more reason for the hotels to lose business and income. Most people with kids like the pools to occupy the children and with no pool open people are likely to stay elsewhere or the next town over.
vgb compliant drain coversInsurance companies companies are being affected too. They are stepping up to get the pools compliant. The average swim club or community pool carries up to a 3 million dollar policy against injury or death . The insurance companies are making these pools comply to avoid the risk of lawsuits. If the pools do not comply they will not have the insurance coverage to remain open. One of the biggest lawsuit settlements ever won over a pool drain injury was for the sum of 30 million dollars. Five-year old Valerie Lakey was disemboweled and died after being caught and suctioned by the wading pool's defective drain. The case was tried and won by John Edwards against the manufacture of the drain, pool associations, and management company of the pool.
While this law is only for all new pools and commercial pools at this point, that may not be the case soon. The Consumer Product Safety Commission will receive federal funding for the residential portion of the VGB Pool and Spa Safety Act. The $410 billion budget bill passed by Congress includes $7.28 million for implementation of the federal safety law. Of this, $2 million is designated to reward states that pass their safety legislation pertaining to residential installations, while $5 million goes to water-safety education and enforcement of the VGB Act.
The agency has not yet drawn up a timeline for getting the residential program underway, but it will need to move quickly. The law only specifies that funding be given for 2009 and 2010 and with states all fighting for their piece of the pie; I bet you will see this part of the law at a pool near you soon!