FRANKFORT — When people go swimming in Lexington's nine public pools this summer, the water should be much safer thanks to anti-drowning drain covers in place under a new federal law.
A state legislator wants to add even more teeth to the federal law, and his bill to do that took a big step Thursday when a Senate committee unanimously approved it.
Senate Bill 21, sponsored by Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, would require public pools and spas to have the drain covers at the bottom of pools to prevent drain suction from trapping people underwater.
"If this bill saves one life, it's worth it," Charles Mattingly, a Lexington subcontractor who builds swimming pools, told members of the Senate panel in speaking on behalf of Buford's bill.
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Lexington had two such cases last summer at private pools, and one resulted in a death.
Mattingly said the Lexington fire department had to break the arm of a 14-year-old girl to retrieve her body from the bottom of a pool outside a condominium complex.
Buford said his bill has the potential to be stronger than the federal law that took effect Jan. 1 because it would allow the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to write details on enforcement and penalties.
The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, which Congress passed last year, requires all pools used by the public, including municipal pools and those at hotels, private clubs, apartment buildings and community centers, to add the drain cover.
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 could become trapped.
The federal law is named for the 7-year-old granddaughter of former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker. She was sucked onto a spa drain in 2002 during a birthday party and drowned despite efforts to pry her off.
Lexington's public swimming pools do not have the anti-entrapment devices, but they will before they open Memorial Day weekend — at a cost of about $100,000, said Jerry Hancock, city parks and recreation director.
"We have large-capacity pools with large drains. We figure we will have to cut concrete to install the drain covers," he said.
Jessica Cobb, manager of environmental health and protection at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said the federal law and Buford's bill "appear to be steps in the right direction."
Hancock and Cobb noted that the covers are in short supply.
There are about 300,000 public pools and spas in the United States, said the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a non-profit group in Colorado Springs.
About 80 percent of them do not have the certified drain covers.
"I hope that these new measures will spur manufacturers to produce many more of the covers. I think that will happen," Hancock said.
Buford's bill would not apply to private swimming pools and spas, but he said he hopes homeowners would install the covers for safety.
The bill now goes to the full Senate. If it becomes law, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2010.