|By Scott Powers and Kevin Spear, The
Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 31, 2009--Swimmers in Orange County can be more confident this summer that inspectors are checking regularly on the cleanliness and safety of the 2,200 hotel, apartment, neighborhood, school and club pools splashed across the county.
After several years in which the Orange County Health Department struggled to keep up, it's on track this year to meet the state requirement of inspecting pools twice a year, matching the record of other county health agencies in Central Florida.Still, many county pool inspectors and safety advocates agree that swimming pools can be truly safe only if they have well-trained, conscientious operators. And, they say, a pool's most effective inspectors are the swimmers themselves.
"We want people to enjoy their visit to the pool and not be afraid to go into the water. But they should do their due diligence," said Jennifer Hatfield, spokeswoman for the Sarasota-based Florida Swimming Pool Association.
County health inspectors check on water chemistry, filtration equipment, safety signs, bathroom sanitation and more than 40 other items, and they have the power to close pools immediately for violations.
More than 70 percent of all routine pool inspections in Central Florida in recent years have resulted in inspectors' highest grade: "satisfactory." But an Orlando Sentinel review of swimming-pool inspection data showed that authorities frequently find enough wrong to order temporary closings after about one in every nine routine pool inspections.
Poorly maintained pools have been known to harbor germs such as the bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease and microscopic parasites such as giardia, which inflict intestinal ailments. Poorly managed pools also have risks ranging from missing lifesaving gear to dangerous wires, and from improperly shielded drains to swimming rodents.
Inspectors keep tabs Unannounced inspections, combined with inspectors' power to close pools, can help keep pool managers vigilant. They're required to keep daily maintenance logs that will be reviewed by inspectors.
Yet a lot can go wrong between visits. Trained operators can leave. Ownership or management can change. Equipment can break down. Gear can disappear. Pools can become chemically unbalanced or contaminated with infectious organisms almost overnight.
"The thing about swimming pools is they can change in an instant," said David Overfield, the Orange County Health Department's environmental director.
Although pool water is definitively connected to illness only in rare cases, it's often a suspect. Earlier this year, for example, four hospital cases of Legionnaires' disease were traced to a Quality Suites hotel in the International Drive corridor, though subsequent tests found no Legionella bacteria there. Legionnaires' is type of pneumonia that can be fatal in 5 percent to 30 percent of cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Orange County Health Department closed the hotel briefly to test the hotel's pool and hot-tub water as well as other possible sources of Legionella. The hotel was cleared and reopened.
Throughout Central Florida, the most common problem inspectors encounter involves improper flow-meter rates, which suggest that the water is not circulating through filters properly, inviting sanitation problems. Inspectors see flow-meter-rate problems in about one of every six inspections, according to state data. By comparison, they see improper chlorine levels in about one of every 10 inspections.
"Improperly filtered water can cause disease," Overfield said.
Record-keeping is another common problem. Without daily maintenance logs, there's little record of how the pool has been tended since the inspectors' last visit, but the logs are cited as inadequate in more than one of every 10 inspections. Another common problem: failure to post swimming-pool rules.
2 checkups a year State guidelines call for at least two routine inspections of each public pool in each fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.
According to Florida Health Department records examined by the Sentinel, county health departments in Osceola, Lake, Seminole, Volusia and Polk each managed two checks at more than 95 percent of their public pools in the 2007-08 fiscal year, while Brevard County topped 90 percent.
Beset with staff shortages, growing numbers of pools and other public facilities -- from foster homes to tanning salons -- that the same health inspectors must check, Orange County's department struggled to meet that guideline in recent years.
In the 2007-08 fiscal year, Orange inspectors managed two routine examinations at fewer than 30 percent of the county's public pools. Some pools, such as the one at Winter Park High School, sometimes went more than a year between inspections, according to state data.
"It was sort of triage," said Orange environmental health director Overfield.
The Florida Department of Health reprimanded Orange last summer and forced it to agree to a plan for increasing staff and improving performance.
During the first six months of the current fiscal year, Overfield said, inspectors were able to get first inspections completed at more than 96 percent of the county's public pools, and he expects them to complete second inspections at the vast majority before July 1.
State data available for July 1, 2008, through March 31, 2009, support Overfield's expectations. Orange inspectors performed 70 percent more public-pool inspections in the first nine months of the fiscal year than they did in the same period in 2007-08.
As a former inspector himself, Overfield thinks the most critical share of responsibility for health and safety lies with pool operators.
Many pool operators agree, including Martyn Watkins, at Keene's Pointe Golden Bear Club in west Orange County.
Before his arrival, the pool there had been hit with a string of closing orders and "unsatisfactory" ratings off and on for several years. The latest was in early 2006. After that, inspectors didn't show up for 28 months.
During that period, Watkins took over pool operations, and a new maintenance company was hired. The pool has received several "satisfactory" grades in a row since.
"As far as I'm concerned," Watkins said, "the manager and members here are much more important than the inspector."
Scott Powers can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5441. Kevin Spear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5062.
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