Debbie Wasserman Schultz

The Need for Federal Pool Safety Legislation - Jan. 27, 2006

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
January 27, 2006— Fort Myers Beach, Florida
5th Annual National Drowning Symposium
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Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here with you today.

Diane, thank you for the warm introduction and for the important work that you do in Lee County to promote pool safety.

For those of you who are not Floridians, welcome to the Sunshine state and the 14th Congressional District represented by my good friend Congressman Connie Mack.

Maureen, thank you for your leadership of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

I know that in the few years of NDPA’s existence, there has been significant improvement in education and public awareness about drowning prevention and safety. As individuals, organizations, government agencies, policymakers and corporations we all share the common goal of saving lives. Through NDPA, we can bring our ideas and “best practices” together to make a difference.

Before I move on, I’d like to recognize Alan Korn, and the wonderful and talented team at Safe Kids Worldwide for making Pool Safety a priority issue this year.

I know that a number of the Florida Safe Kids coalitions are here with us today. Thank you all for your tireless efforts on behalf of the Preston de Ibern, Merriam Mackenzie Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act that we finally passed into law in 2000.

Now, as a Member of Congress, I look forward to working with all of you and others from around the country on federal pool safety and drowning prevention legislation. I have been working on this legislation over the past several months and I cannot think of a better forum to introduce this legislation.

But first, I’d like to share a story that has a tragic ending that is probably all too familiar for many of you here today.

We all look forward to the joys of summer! Swimming pool owners look forward to the season when they can enjoy relaxing around their pools with their family and friends. In warm weather states like Florida, these activities can be enjoyed year round. Unfortunately, in an instant, this oasis of beauty, pleasure and relaxation can bring devastating consequences.

Two and a half years ago, on a hot June day, 7-year-old Virginia Graeme Baker, granddaughter of former Secretary of State, James Baker went with her mother, Nancy, and four sisters to a family friend’s home for a graduation party.

Graeme, as she was affectionately known, had worn her swimsuit to the party and jumped in the pool as soon as they arrived.

Shortly after, Graeme’s older sister ran up to Nancy [their mother] and told her that Graeme was underwater in the hot tub and would not come up. Nancy raced to the spa, but could not find Graeme in the hot tub’s dark water and thick bubbles.

What she did next is what I know any mother would do. Nancy jumped into the hot tub to save her child.

Sadly, she found her daughter lying unconscious on the bottom of the spa. She threw her arms down into the water to pull Graeme up, but could not wrench her from the bottom.

As she desperately yanked, two men jumped in and grabbed Graeme’s ankles, they had to pull so hard to release Graeme that they broke the drain cover.

Emergency units arrived immediately and performed CPR, but Graeme could not be revived. She was flown to Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, but it was too late. Graeme was pronounced dead.

It wasn’t until the police report came out, that Nancy discovered what happened: Graeme’s hip or buttock had become suctioned to the hot tub’s drain.

Graeme Baker, a child of one of the most prominent families in America, was the victim of suction entrapment.

As with most pool and hot tub drownings, the fact that her death was entirely preventable makes the loss that much more tragic and infuriating.

Despite the enormity of this tragedy, Nancy Baker overcame it! She committed herself to ensuring that this never happens to another child and embarked on a crusade to improve pool safety.

Nancy shared Graeme’s story across America and testified before the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on the need for improved safety measures in pools and hot tubs.

Nancy is here with us today and I’d like to recognize her for her great courage and tremendous resilience.

Nancy and her family have joined Safe Kids Worldwide in developing National Safe Kids Week 2006. This annual public education and awareness campaign focuses on specific safety topics for children up to 14-years old.

This year, the campaign’s focus is pool safety and with the help of everyone in this room, I know the word will spread.

The Baker family tragedy is a painful example of the need for pool safety legislation. We must implement national standards to replace the haphazard safety measures that allowed Graeme, and hundreds of children like her, to be lost in such nightmare scenarios.

The facts speak for themselves:

Drowning is the second leading cause of childhood deaths by injury in the United States.

In 2002, 335 children under the age of 14 drowned in swimming pools or spas.

I can’t emphasize this enough:

335 children across the nation under the age of 14 drowned in swimming pools or spas in 2002.

That’s 335 lives that were cut very short because we didn’t act quickly enough to address this problem.

The victims go beyond these 335 children – the victims include the parents and families left to grieve in the traumatic aftermath of the preventable loss of a child.

Here in Florida, pools are as common as palm trees, and drowning holds the gruesome distinction as the leading cause of death among our youngest children.

I mentioned earlier that during my time in the Florida Legislature, I introduced and passed the Preston de Ibern/McKenzie Merriam Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act of 2000.

The law was named for two beautiful children, Preston de Ibern, who was five years old at the time of his near-drowning and McKenzie Merriam, who was just eighteen months old when she drowned.

Like Nancy Baker, Carole de Ibern, Preston ’s Mom, who is with us today, fought tirelessly for three years to help me pass this legislation. She drove with Preston in their van from Pinellas County to Tallahassee for every committee hearing and every time the bill was heard on the floor of the House or Senate for three years.

She would tell Preston ’s story with Preston right by her side in his wheelchair. He was a living example of the bi-level tragedy of child drownings and near-drownings.

Preston finally succumbed to his catastrophic health care issues when he was twelve years old. Carole, you honored his life and now honor his memory through your tireless advocacy on drowning prevention. It has been an honor to work with you through the years.

The law in Florida requires that all new residential swimming pools built after October 1, 2000 be surrounded by one of four safety barriers: a pool safety fence, or a pool safety cover, or a self-closing, self-latching mechanism on the doors leading to the pool area or continuous-sounding door and window alarms on the doors and windows leading to the pool area.

I am pleased to report that in 2004, the death from drowning for 0-5 years was the lowest since 1998; 3.3 deaths per 100,000 in Florida. I believe our pool safety legislation and the enhanced public knowledge of this problem have driven down these numbers.

Now, we are taking the next step to prevent pool and spa tragedies, because this problem does not stop at state lines. The same nightmarish stories and tragic endings are just as common in states across the country from California to Maine.

So why hasn’t something been done on a national level up to this point?

There is a very straightforward solution to prevent these tragedies: Research by the New England Journal of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control indicate installation and proper use of a safety fence around residential swimming pools and spas could prevent 50-90 percent of childhood pool drownings and near-drownings.

It couldn’t be more clear that something can and must be done.

The bitter truth is that the pool and spa industry walks a fine line between public responsibility and boosting sales. Needless to say, the swimming pool industry does not see an upside for sales in highlighting the risk of suction entrapment and drowning, but all of us know that there should be no greater incentive than saving the life of a child.

Sadly, the National Spa and Pool Institute opposed the legislation in Florida and even sued, unsuccessfully after it became law, to try to have it declared unconstitutional.

NSPI has opposed every pool safety proposal across the country. Rather than remain an obstacle, I call upon them today to join us in our effort to reduce the number of children who needlessly drown in pools and spas.

They cannot continue to stuff their hands in their pockets and declare that supervision is the only answer.

Since my election to Congress, developing national comprehensive pool and spa safety legislation has been one of my top priorities.

I am proud to say that when Congress returns from recess for the second session of the 109 th Congress, I will introduce the Graeme Baker Memorial Pool and Spa Safety Act.

Safety issues are not just the primary responsibility of state and local governments. This legislation would provide states with the funding and technical assistance needed to enforce proven pool safety guidelines.

My legislation does not mandate that states adopt these safety measures. It does, however, give them incentives to do so by providing federal grants to states that require barriers such as fences, to be erected around swimming pools; or by providing federal grants to states that require the installation of anti-drain entrapment devices to protect against suction entrapment drowning.

My legislation specifically addresses and requires “layers of protection – the best way to prevent drowning.

The first layer calls for the installation of physical barriers around the pool to limit access. This barrier should be a fence, at least 4-feet high, with self-closing and self-latching gates.

The second layer of protection calls for swimming pools to be equipped with a suction outlet drain cover. These devices prevent hair and body entanglement.

The third layer requires installing a safety vacuum release system. This device automatically shuts off a pump if a blockage is detected.

While most new pools come equipped with this system, there is no similar protection for the roughly 4 million in-ground pools in the United States with single-main drains and aging drain covers.

Finally, we all know that the most effective barrier is supervision, public education and awareness. Thus, the legislation authorizes the Consumer Product Safety Commission to conduct a public education program.

As pool safety advocates, we must carry the message that drowning is preventable and that the most effective preventive measure anyone can take is active supervision.

The truth is, while 94 percent of people report that they always actively supervise their children while swimming, closer examination indicates that parents often participate in a variety of distracting behaviors.

And, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in five parents believes that a lifeguard is the main person responsible for supervising children in the water.

Lifeguards are a key safety measure but it’s important to remember that the lifeguard-to-swimmer ratio at public swimming areas may be as great as 25 swimmers per lifeguard.

They also report that 55 percent of parents thought there were circumstances in which it was O.K. for a child to swim without a buddy.

Within this category, 31 percent said it was O.K. to leave a child unsupervised if he or she swam with a buddy.

29 percent thought it was O.K. if the child was an excellent swimmer.

23 percent thought it was O.K. if the child had several years of swimming lessons

I could stand here all day and I still would not be able to adequately emphasize that parents must actively supervise their children whenever they are in or near the water. But we all know that no matter how vigilant we are, supervision does lapse and we must have layers of protection in place when that happens.

This means that ultimately we as parents and concerned adults must take every measure possible to prevent drowning tragedies.

And we must demand that the industry does its part as well.

Virginia Graeme Baker would be 11 years old today. Preston de Ibern would be 15 years old.

In honor of their memories, and that of every other drowning victim, I ask that each of you continue your efforts to ensure the safety of family and friends and most importantly, our children. Together, we can reduce the likelihood of drownings across the country.

We will never know how many lives we may save or how many near-drownings we prevent, but we do know that we can prevent the heartbreak of countless parents. That alone is worth the effort.

Thank you.

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