Pool Safety, Liability and Management In the Swim

Many homeowner associations (HOAs) maintain either an indoor or outdoor pool for the benefit of their members. Indeed, swimming is not only a pleasant way to cool off during the summer months; it's also one of the most efficient forms of exercise, and one of the less strenuous on the muscles and joints.

A private community association pool is not without its headaches, however. Management of such a recreational amenity is hard work. There are rules and regulations, both state and federal, to which associations must adhere. There are additional staff that must be hired—either via subcontractor or directly—to both maintain the facility and to serve as lifeguards. And there are insurance liability issues that must be dealt with, too.

That said, the red tape is not without purpose. The reason the federal and state governments enact bathing regulations, the reason lifeguards are on hand at community swimming pools, and the reason insurance companies are sticklers for certain rules is to keep everyone who swims in the pool safe.

Know the Law

Swimming pools are covered under the New Jersey State Bathing Code, a substantial document of some fifty pages that deals with everything from the slope of the pool deck to the degrees from plumb of the offset ledges.

Just about every item in the Bathing Code is there to promote a safe swimming experience—especially for children. Drowning is the number one cause of death for children under the age of five in California, Alaska, and Florida, and high on the list in New Jersey as well.

Here are some rules from the Bathing Code:

• All pool areas must be fenced in. An enclosed space lessens the chance that unattended children might accidentally tumble into the water. It also keeps out most animals, and makes the pool area easier for a lifeguard to manage.

• The entrance to the enclosed pool area must be located at the shallow end of the swimming pool. The thinking is, should a child make a run for the pool upon entering the swimming area, she will only make it to the shallow water.

• Ladders and stairs must be provided on all pools more than two feet deep. This rule is more for adults, who are generally less acrobatic than kids when it comes to hauling themselves out of the water.

• The pool must have a filtration system that circulates the water completely at least once every eight hours. Filters ensure that the water is clean, and that the chemicals are properly mixed. Still water attracts bugs and unwholesome algae and bacteria growth.

• Physical connections between drinking water and the pool's filtration system are prohibited. For anyone who ever accidentally gulped down a mouthful of chlorinated pool water, the merits of this rule are obvious.

Complicating matters, associations have to abide by not only the state Bathing Code, but the national one as well. While there is significant overlap, there are some regulations in the latter that the former overlooks, says Trevor Sherwood, the owner of Pool Operation Management in Brick. For example, the national code requires spas to have energy shut-off switches.

While exceptions can be made for hotels, retirement communities, and some other specialized residences, the rule of thumb is that swimming pools at condominium complexes must be attended by lifeguards at all times when the pool is open.

Water slides are allowed with permission, as long as they conform to set standards. Diving boards are also allowed, but are such a liability that almost every community pool in the state chooses to do without.

"There's a fifty percent increase of a lawsuit if diving boards or alcohol are allowed," says Sherwood. "You get cheaper insurance rates if those two things aren't permitted." In other words, don't drink or dive.

"The only place you see diving boards nowadays are at community swim clubs," he says.

Look Out for Liability

Indeed, the cost of insurance, not to mention potential lawsuits, dissuades most boards from attempting to manage the pool in-house.

Diane Dangler, who manages the Alderbrook Condominium Association in Ocean Port, recommends that a board hire a pool management company to run the operation directly. "I prefer to do it because of liability," she says.

Although Dangler is a certified pool operator and extremely knowledgeable about the subject, she would not manage a pool for a living, she says, for the same reason.

Pool Operation Management used to manage community pools. Now, the company provides training for lifeguards and managers like Dangler who want to get familiar with liability, risk management, filtration systems, chemistry, and other aspects of swimming pools - but the company is no longer involved with day-to-day operations. Why not?

"I got tired of the lawsuits," Sherwood says.

One of them involved a child who injured his ear because he was accidentally kicked in the head by another "patron" of the community pool. The "patron" turned out to be his little brother. The case was settled out of court, as most of them are. But that alone doesn't ease the stress.

"New Jersey is notoriously litigious," says Steve Jannarone of Candlewood Management Services, a company in Howell that specializes in pool operations. "And pools are considered a public nuisance. It's a volatile industry."

Jannarone, however, shrugs off the idea that he should close up shop because of lawsuits. "That's why there's insurance," he says. "The cost gets transferred to the customers."

He goes on to say that the best way to avoid lawsuits is to promote safety. As prickly as lawsuits can be, their proliferation does ensure that associations bend over backwards to keep their swimming pools safe.

"You want to provide a safe environment for swimming, you want to check for physical hazards on the decks and ladders and so forth, so no one trips."

Accidents on the deck, according to Sherwood, outnumber accidents in the pool itself, at least where lawsuits are concerned.

It's tricky to assemble a team of lifeguards, as many are high school or college students and seasonal employees. Assuring that they are properly certified is a must. "You want to provide a secure, confident and safe staff" of lifeguards, says Jannarone.

Jannarone notes a different way some of the larger condominium associations utilize his lifeguards: as pool guards, barring entrance to anyone who may be delinquent with his or her payments.

"A pool is one tangible thing a homeowners association can use to collect dues," he says.

Outsourced Management

Even if the day-to-day management of the pool is outsourced to a vendor like Candlewood Management Services, there is still pool-related work for managers to do.

Dangler, for her part, knows her pool inside and out. She examines the levels in the water all through the winter, as heavy rain and snow can affect the amount of water in the pool and its chemical makeup. She employs an electrician who is experienced with pools to do the circuitry work. She circulates the pool rules, which she tweaks when necessary at the end of each season, to the members.

Rather than using badges or passes to grant association members access to the pool, Dangler employs a log-in system, where lifeguards monitor people coming and signing in, and she updates her master log regularly. This way, she knows exactly who was at the pool at any given time, should safety concerns arise. Also, the pool is open at six, but if the log indicates that no one ever swims until seven, she can suggest that the board change the hours of operation and thus save some money.

Managers also get involved in getting the proper licenses and permits, although management companies can assist with that as well. There are few universal required permits, and much variation depending on where the condominium is located, Jannarone says.

"Some require health inspections, some don't," he says. "Almost all require yearly electrical inspections. Some charge additional fees for snack bars or vending machines, other don't. There's not a lot of consistency from community to community."

One statewide rule holds that every pool must be operated by a certified pool operator. To get the certification, says Sherwood, you must take a two-day class and pass an open-book examination. The certification must be renewed every two years, typically by the National Swimming Pool Foundation. Dangler recommends the certification for managers, so they can bone up on their knowledge of backwashing, filtration systems, and basic pool chemistry.

In New Jersey, the traditional pool season runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Weather conditions being what they are, this doesn't allow for much time to get the proper approvals and to summer-ize the pool.

"You can't paint a pool unless it's a certain temperature, for example," says Jannarone. "And lab tests, if required, can take two to three days to get back. So we're always on a tight time constraint in April and May."

Whether an instructor like Trevor Sherwood, a pool operator like Steve Jannarone, or a condo manager like Diane Dangler, the key to getting the most out of a community swimming pool is to play it safe.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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11 Comments

  • Is there a State Law that says people who are swimming in a INDOOR totally enclosed swimming pool have to get at of the pool if there is thunder or lightening outside?
  • Is there a law that requires patio furniture to be a certain distance from the pool?
  • What are the exceptions for retirement communities in requiring a lifeguard?
  • is it permissible for pool users in a retirement community to shower at home rather than at the community pool prior to entering the pool
  • In my condo development, the board is allowing and participating in parties that include "some" condo owners and their outside guests who are drinking wine and dancing to loud music in the pool area. Is this safe and what can I do about it AS AN OWNER?
  • I am swimming in one of the Health Club in New Jersey.There are two pools under one roof one for kids warm 83F (6 lanes X 50 feet) and Lessons and the other is Laps swim pool 81F temperature (5 Lanes X 81 feet long). I see only only one Lifeguard is looking for both pools when pool separatly locating and swimmers swim in both. Observation of both pools not clear from any places. Is it required two Lifeguards by State Regulations?
  • What are the rules regarding smoking in a condo pool area?
  • I was recently injured in a diving accident at a community pool in Hunterdon county. I am trying to find information regarding the design of diving board areas in a community pool; how deep the water needs to be, what angle the slope needs to be from the diving are to the swimming area stuff like that. Can you help me in this matter
  • I am a certified school nurse at a private school in New Jersey for special needs children ages 3-21.. We currently have a new aquatic pool that isn't opened yet. Can you tell me where I can go to research NJ state law governing indoor aquatic therapy pools? I want to be prepared.
  • Is there a rule in place in NJ regarding overcapacity of a town public pool. My wife suffered a seizure from the stress of way too many swimmers (And I mean no one was able to swim), which triggered a heart attack that lead to her near fatal drowning.
  • Can I contact you regarding retirement community pools? My association has expanded the hours minors are allowed in our pool without a lifeguard or monitor for risky/dangerous behaviors (some committed by adults residents) and I am anxious that if the association is sued and there isn't adequate limits, the homeowners will be assessed to make up the difference.