17 January 2018

Backyard swimming pools - stronger regulation needed to keep people safer

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA
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Backyard swimming pools are great fun in summer but are we serious about making them safe?

We are in the middle of a long hot summer. Children are enjoying long lazy summer days and many of these young people are enjoying the benefits of backyard swimming pools, meaning hours of fun and enjoyment.

While this means lots of fun, it can be easy to forget that there is danger too. During these summer months there is an increased potential for drownings due to poor supervision, poor fencing and a lack of understanding of what to do to reduce the risk of drownings and near drownings. As such, this hot spell brings in sharp focus the need for us to do more to respond to the dangers that lurk in many of our backyards due to inadequate regulation of backyard pools, poor enforcement of rules, and a lack of understanding of what we all need to do to keep people safe.

This is an issue where our youngest residents are most at risk, with most incidents happening to the under-five age group. In addition to drownings causing death, it is also deeply distressing to reflect on the near-drowning incidents that can lead to significant disability and incapacity. Since 2004 we have had two tragic cases of small children drowning in local backyard pools and causing heartbreak for families, friends and the whole community. There have also been numerous near drownings that have caused disability that changed people’s lives forever.

As they should, these tragedies have resulted in soul searching and reflecting and coroners have examined these incidents in order to provide practical recommendations to Government about the things we can do as a community to keep our children safer. Devastatingly, the coroners examining these tragedies have reinforced our knowledge that these deaths are preventable and there are things that we can do as a community to reduce the danger.

While adult supervision and awareness of water safety are always essential, adequate pool fencing is also key to keeping people safe. Reviews have found that in the ACT, problems with fencing of backyard pools have contributed to the circumstances that led to these incidents. This has included unfenced pools, faulty latches and gates, gates being propped open or pools that are isolated or not accessible from the home.

While there are requirements for new fences, there are still no requirements to upgrade existing pools and spas. This means that in many streets and neighborhoods there are pools that are easily accessible and pose real dangers, particularly to our most vulnerable and smallest residents. In addition, few resources are devoted to inspection and enforcement of the requirements we currently have in place. Due to this, we have no idea if pools that when built had adequate fencing, continue to meet these rules that are in place only to prevent drownings of residents and visitors to private homes.

The Government has been promising for years to improve legislation, and has supported public awareness campaigns including the ‘backyard lifesavers’ campaign over the last couple of summers. In public comments, Government appears to recognize that improving the rules to upgrade fencing at point-of-sale or lease is something that could be considered, along with registers of pools in the ACT to support increased inspection and enforcement. But while discussion papers were released as early as 2011, public comments made in late 2016 that new legislation was being developed, and agreement to recommendations about new legislation made in response to coroners reports in 2017, we are yet to see any new legislation. With each year of delay, another summer rolls on and the danger continues, giving us little more than hope that a local family doesn’t face another tragedy this summer.

I think that improving the rules around backyard pools is an urgent priority for Government that must be progressed. What do you think?

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An abject disgrace that the Barr Govt resists a straight forward measure used elsewhere to prevent drownings and save the lives of little kids.
But with the abuse in Bimberi going on for years against kids, also under this govt, should I be surprised?

The number 1 contributing factor for children drowning in backyard swimming pools is insufficient parental supervision. Parents just don’t pay enough attention to what their kids are doing. Get distracted by their phones, conversations, cooking etc.

Pool fencing helps to an extent, but it’s not foolproof. Any number of things can happen to mean that the fence may not be effective and the law makers can’t be at every pool all day every day to enforce compliance. There is no substitute for parents teaching their kids what to do and supervising them properly.

We have a pool that was built in the 1980s when external fencing and pool gates sufficed – the issue we’d have is that there is no space in our backyard to put another fence around the pool – even if we had a bigger backyard why should we have to incur that cost when we have measures preventing unauthorised access to the pool? Requiring responsible people to do more doesn’t solve the issue of people not locking doors, fixing their fences or propping gates open.

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