At the Lofts at Valley Forge, the pool is a community hot spot.
O'Neill Properties Group At the Lofts at Valley Forge, the pool is a community hot spot.

Summertime often brings vacations, cookouts, and days spent poolside, but there can be a darker side to all the family fun. As director of education and sales for Nine Mile Falls, Wash.-based Stingl Products, a manufacturer of pool and spa safety equipment, Mike Low keeps track of a rather macabre statistic—annual drowning deaths in the United States due to drain entrapment. Entrapments occur when swimmers both unwary and unsupervised venture too close to the active suction of an unprotected pool drain. Hair, swimsuits, jewelry, and body limbs are all easily drawn into the vortex of suction, which can exert more than 350 pounds of pressure and easily entrap and incapacitate even the strongest of adult swimmers.

“Drowning by drain entrapment can occur in a number of different ways, including evisceration and disembowelment,” Low says. “But no matter how, the result is horrific and appalling.” And preventable. When Low first joined Stingl 11 years ago, he figured that it would take a high-profile entrapment death for the public at large to take notice. Tragically, that's exactly what happened on June 15, 2002, when 7-year-old Virginia Graeme Baker, the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, drowned by entrapment while the family was at a graduation party.

Baker's death helped to galvanize legislators, special interest groups, and the pool and spa industry in fighting for federal legislation. On Dec. 19, 2007, President George W. Bush signed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Safety Act into law, mandating anti-entrapment drain covers and additional layers of protection, including dual drains and safety vacuum-release systems. The deadline for compliance for multifamily properties—which fall under the public/commercial pool designation—is Dec. 19, 2008.

Thankfully, complying with the law is quite simple and should not represent a significant burden to any safety-minded multifamily property manager. “Multifamily property owners and managers have to be aware of the Virginia Graeme Baker act,” says Bill Weber, president of the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP), an industry group that spearheaded the effort to establish legislation. “They need to immediately do two things: get the appropriate anti-entrapment drain covers, and make sure they have a back-up vacuum-release system that will trigger a pump shut-off in the event that an entrapment still occurs.”

OUNCE OF PREVENTION All told, retrofitting an existing pool with the appropriate safety equipment shouldn't run more than $1,000—hardly a blip for a multimillion dollar real estate asset. Not only is the investment a cheap hedge against millions of dollars in liability, it's obviously a no-brainer in an industry that prides itself on providing safe places to live, work, and play.

“Water is such a great feature, particularly as part of an amenity like a pool or spa,” says Tony Rossi, president of Chicago-based RMK Management Corp., which owns and operates more than 14,000 units in Illinois and Minneapolis. “But you have to be aware of all safety concepts, and you have to implement them. We're happy to meet all of the drainage and cap requirements—those requirements are a part of all of our plans to use water amenities in creating great resort-style communities.”

At Regency Place, RMK's 112-unit luxury rental community in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., residents enjoy a heated indoor pool, spa, sauna, and steam room rivaling any condo or resort accommodations. While Rossi says RMK has been providing world-class pool and spa amenities for years, he admits that the bar is continuously being raised—and along with it, the investment that multifamily operators need to make from both a cost and design standpoint. “Especially with high rises, you have to get very creative about how to incorporate pools or spas into your design,” Rossi says. “We are looking at some wave designs for spas so you are not knocking knees, and a lot of companies are moving toward the smaller, resistance pools.”

In Long Island City, N.Y.—just across the East River from Midtown Manhattan—New York City's Roe Development Corp. is including a “sun pool” as part of a rooftop sky lounge and deck area at Star Tower. The 1-foot-deep wading pool is more cost-effective, even for the large condo community, which boasts some 180 units. Yet the shallow pool still provides a soothing, water-related amenity for residents as they enjoy skyline views of Manhattan. “A lot of what distinguishes your property from another is in the common areas of the building,” says company president Richard Roe. “We are trying to keep cost levels down so our residents can enjoy a wide variety of amenities, but we are not sacrificing a lot out of pocket for it.”

BETTER SAFE Even with water 1 foot deep, Roe's not shrinking from anti-entrapment measures for the Star Tower's sun pool or additional safety measures at the Jacuzzi that overlooks the property's outdoor amenity space. “We'll have supervisory personnel on duty at all times when the facilities are open,” Roe says.

Of course, rules and supervision have always been the bane of fun-minded pool-goers, but property managers are wise to be sticklers to the regulations. “The rules are the rules,” says Alan Silverman, property manager at the Lofts at Valley Forge, a 388-unit apartment community in King of Prussia, Pa., developed by locally based O'Neill Properties Group. “But you know what? They are for everyone's safety. Our pool is open from noon to 7 p.m., and there are plenty of people that would love to have longer hours. [But] if there is not a lifeguard on duty, the pool does not open.”

Silverman is quick to point out that pools and parties are not mutually exclusive—the Lofts relies on its pool as a focal point for the 65.5-acre community and even held a “Dive In” movie party hosted by local radio DJs and catered by Morton's of Chicago to celebrate the pool's May grand opening (see “Wave Reviews,” below). “We're promoting lifestyle here,” Silverman says. “We use the pool to activate that lifestyle, as a central amenity, and as a gathering place for our community of residents.”With new safety mandates under the Virginia Graeme Baker act, multifamily property managers such as Silverman can still include pools as a piece of the action while maintaining their peace of mind when it comes to the safety of residents. “[The Virginia Graeme Baker act] should really interest anyone who is safety-conscious and looking to pools and spas as a way to open up their communities,” the APSP's Weber says. “Whether you take care of operations internally or you are being serviced by a pool professional, you need to be aware that this is the law and you need to take reasonable precautions.”

Resident Files

Wave Reviews

The big screen is a big hit at community pool parties.

Phase one of the Lofts at Valley Forge in King of Prussia, Pa., began lease-up last fall—a little late in the year to open the property's resort-style pool, sundeck, and hot tub, which overlook the Schuylkill River. With two phases of the 388-unit rental commmunity left to lease this May—and residents clamoring to mingle poolside, the developer, locally based O'Neill Properties Group, decided to throw a “Dive In” movie event for the pool's grand opening.Hosted by local radio DJs from W MMR and catered by Morton's of Chicago, the event drew 200 people to float around and watch John Cusack and Demi Moore in One Crazy Summer on three 50-inch LCD flatscreens positioned around the pool. “I've got two criteria for selecting the movies at our pool screenings,” says Lofts property manager Alan Silverman. “No profanity and absolutely no nudity.”Just as important to Silverman is safety, so lifeguards were on duty and beverages were served in non-glass containers. “Everybody had a great time,” Silverman says. “They were grilling filets and burgers all night, and the WMMR morning crew got the party going and even did tours of the apartments with applicants.” As a result, when the end credits to One Crazy Summer rolled, Silverman got to lock up the leasing office early with a stack of rental contracts in one hand and a cheeseburger slider in the other.