The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department says most of the city's pools and spas still need the anti-drowning drain covers required under a new federal law that goes into effect Friday.
But the covers are expensive and in short supply, and equipment suppliers have dozens of pools on waiting lists.
The drain covers are one of several changes or additions pools might need to comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, which Congress passed last year to prevent drain suction from trapping children underwater. Lexington had two such cases — one resulted in a death — this summer.
Under the law, all pools used by the public, including municipal pools and those at hotels, private clubs, apartment buildings and community centers, have to add the drain cover, said Jessica Cobb, manager of environmental health and protection at the health department.
Some pools with one main drain are required to add a safety vacuum release system or a second main drain. Suction is split between two main drains so it's not as likely someone will become trapped.
The National Swimming Pool Foundation, a non-profit group in Colorado Springs, Colo., said about 80 percent of the 300,000 public pools and spas in the United States do not comply with the new rules and might have to close.
But few businesses carry the certified drain covers that meet "very strict standards" set under the law.
"The problem with adding the drain covers is not that people do not want to do it," Cobb said. "It's that there's a shortage of supply."
Seasonal pools will have until they open to comply, so some operators might wait until spring to start the work. Those who haven't made necessary changes could face hefty fines.
On Thursday, Cobb said she did not know how many pools and spas in Fayette County will probably be violating the law on Friday.
All the YMCA pools in Fayette County have safety vacuum release systems, said David Elsen, executive director of the location on High Street. Every pool except the High Street pool also has two main drains.
Elsen said the YMCA is still working on getting the drain covers, but the pools plan to remain open.
About $5,000 was spent by the Lexington Athletic Club to remove the pool drains because there wasn't a certified cover to fit the large drains. The larger drains were replaced with sizes in which the covers are available, General Manager Mark Dickinson said.
Dickinson said the work was completed last week, but the club had waited until the last minute in order to see whether the needed drain covers became available.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has asked the health department to compile a list of public baby pools, wading pools and in-ground spas that have flat drain grates on the bottom and just one drain system.
"We will be focusing our initial efforts on the littlest swimmers in the littlest pools," said Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the agency.
Cobb said the health department had not been given a deadline to submit that list to the state. But the department plans to follow up with pool operators before the list is submitted, she said.
Cobb said she was not sure whether the commission would send inspectors to enforce the law.
Nord said Congress did not give her agency the $7 million needed to enforce it, so the federal government expects states to take on much of the enforcement responsibility.
"We have limited resources and we don't have the resources to send federal safety inspectors to every single pool," she said.
Still, the health department supports the new law's intention despite the tough job to get all pools in compliance.
"It's going to save countless lives," Cobb said.
Law named for victim
The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act is named for the 7-year-old granddaughter of former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker who was sucked onto a spa drain in 2002. She drowned despite efforts to pry her off.
This summer in Lexington, a 3-year-old boy was found at the bottom of a pool at 200 Alsab Court and resuscitated, but Kiah Nicole Milsom, 14, died after she became trapped underwater in a pool outside a condominium complex.
Investigators said Kiah, who had trespassed with friends, was swimming at the bottom of the pool, possibly searching in the drain for a lost bracelet, at 4 a.m. July 20.
Her arm was sucked into the drain and she was submerged for about 20 minutes. She was taken to the University of Kentucky Hospital, where she died five days later of a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen.
In August, Kiah's mother filed a lawsuit against the Lexington Aintree Condominiums Inc., 421 Redding Road, which owns the pool.
The lawsuit alleges that the owners knew or should have known the drainage pump was dangerous, and that they knew or should have known that children might swim in the pool unauthorized. The suit states the drain cover was not properly in place, as required by law.
Pool operators in Fayette County have reported being put on waiting lists for the certified drain covers, frustrating the operators and the health department officials monitoring progress, Cobb said. She said there are probably 10 or fewer manufacturers nationwide.
Some pool operators have also said they don't have the money for changes.
"We can't tell them that it's OK for them to break the law," Cobb said. "All that we can tell them is if you're worried about breaking the law, then you really need to close until you have the drain cover."
Swim Pro Service and Supply in Lexington has about 75 customers, with 50 on waiting lists. They have ordered parts or hired the company to do work such as installing drains or safety vacuum release systems.
Owner Ray Parker said business has been heavy for the past couple of months. Swim Pro has served mostly customers in Fayette County.
The drain covers can cost $100 to $400, Parker said. Drain installation often costs $1,800 to $4,500. And the safety vacuum release system costs $1,800.
Parker said many manufactures haven't been able to get their drain covers approved because of an extensive certification process that takes at least 40 days. The certification process includes ultraviolet ray testing, a chemical corrosion test and an impact test. The drains also have to meet finger entrapment and flow rate specifications.
"If they're not certified, they're no good to you," Parker said of the covers. He said businesses have been told that, after the law goes into effect, they could be fined up to $1.8 million for selling drain covers that have not been certified.