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Alarmed About Pool Safety

Vigilance can save a child's life. Warning systems can help keep watch.

July 29, 2001|KATHY SENA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call David Dukes a worrywart. He doesn't mind. As the father of 3-year-old Michele, Dukes says he is "paranoid about the pool" in the family's backyard in West Los Angeles.

While the pool area is separated from his house by a 5-foot fence with a self-closing gate, "I'm always thinking, 'Is the gate closed? Is the gate closed?"' Dukes says.

His fretting isn't unfounded, experts say. In Orange County, eight children have drowned so far this year--more than double last year's rate, says Michelle Feczko, injury-prevention coordinator at Children's Hospital of Orange County. Near-drowning incidents involved 14 more.

In fact, the high number of deaths prompted a proposal for a local ordinance in Huntington Beach that would require a motion-detection-type pool alarm be added when a new pool is built or when a home with a pool is sold.

Pool alarms, designed to sound if a child falls into the water (or crosses a light beam surrounding the pool's perimeter, in the case of laser-beam alarms) are the newest tool for homeowners seeking to increase the safety of their pool area.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, nationwide sales of pool alarms have doubled since 1994. There are three basic types:

* Underwater alarms, which detect movement under the water's surface.

* Surface alarms, which detect movement on the water's surface. (Note that while underwater alarms can be used in conjunction with pool covers, surface alarms can't.)

* Laser-beam perimeter alarms, which detect movement before a child enters the water. The alarm sounds when someone enters the invisible laser-beam path surrounding the pool.

All pool alarms aren't created equal, of course. Some designs can plague homeowners with false alarms brought on by fallen leaves or even a good strong wind. The danger here, safety experts stress, is that homeowners will become annoyed and simply disable the alarm.

Dukes and his wife, Bonnie Kalisher-Dukes, faced this frustration after buying a surface pool alarm, for about $70, from a catalog featuring child-safety products. The alarm was certainly capable of getting the couple's attention.

"It had the volume level of a smoke alarm," Kalisher-Dukes notes. When her husband was testing it in the pool, "I could hear the alarm while I was going for a walk around the block."

But the alarm was unreliable and impossible to fine-tune correctly, says Dukes, who adds that sometimes a leaf would trip the alarm, while at other times, a basketball thrown in the water would go unannounced. So the couple is still searching for a reasonably priced, reliable pool alarm. "It seems like the technology should be there to make one affordable," Dukes says.

Several reliable pool alarms are available--most for less than $300--experts say. In May 2000, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released the results of its extensive pool-alarm testing. And in an article published in its July issue, Good Housekeeping magazine rated pool alarms that had been tested by its Good Housekeeping Institute engineers.

The commission's tests, which did not include laser-beam perimeter alarms, showed that underwater alarms performed most reliably. (One surface alarm, the Pool SOS, performed almost as well. See the accompanying story for details.) Underwater alarms sounded more consistently and were less likely to produce false alarms, testers found. When a test object, intended to simulate the weight of a small child, was pushed into a pool, the underwater alarms did the best job.

While Los Angeles County had reported one backyard pool drowning of a child younger than 5 this year as of May 25, an estimated 10 to 15 near-drownings have occurred, says Billie Weiss, director of injury and violence prevention for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

"And that's significantly underreported," she adds, given that only two L.A. County hospitals provide such statistics. In 2000, 10 children died in backyard pools in L.A. County, Weiss says.

She notes that in the late '90s, California passed a law requiring that all homes with new pools have either a barrier (wall or fence) between the house and the pool or have alarms installed on all windows or doors leading to the pool area. Unfortunately, says Weiss, that leaves a lot of older pools that aren't covered by the law, which also doesn't require a pool to be brought up to code when the house is sold.

Such regulations don't go far enough, according to health officials and child-safety organizations.

They recommend that pool owners provide "layers of protection" to keep young children from entering a pool unnoticed. These include walls or fences; self-closing, self-latching gates; door and window alarms; automatic pool covers; and pool alarms. Several safety experts recommended installing at least three separate layers of protection.

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