Before anyone dips a toe in the shimmering blue water of this Brooklyn Center pool, Hennepin County environmentalist Joe Jurusik needs to take a close look.
Are the chlorine levels correct? Is the pool area outfitted with the required safety equipment? Is it surrounded by a fence with a self-closing gate?
Jurusik tests the water, inspects the area and gives the pool at Carrington Drive Apartments a thumbs up. Staff can open it for the season.
Before pools can open in much of suburban Hennepin County, one of 16 environmentalists from the county’s Environmental Health unit must inspect them. This swim season, they will inspect 463 pools to make sure they meet standards. This includes both indoor and outdoor pools at schools, apartments, condos, health clubs and country clubs.
If a pool — public, private or even a back-yard variety — falls into disarray or appears abandoned, officials will force an owner to fix it or fill it in.
How different communities manage pools has been on the public’s radar since two brothers, ages 7 and 10, fell into an abandoned St. Paul pool, in neighboring Ramsey County, on May 25. That pool had filled with murky runoff. Firefighters rescued the boys, but the younger one died last week. In the aftermath, St. Paul officials have scrambled to respond to complaints about abandoned or unused pools.
Another tragic incident occurred last week when a 3-year-old girl was found drowned in a Brooklyn Park apartment pool. That pool had passed a city inspection in May.
Hennepin County officials recently shared their pool inspection and safety protocol with the public. They oversee pool inspections for 38 of the 45 communities in the county. (Brooklyn Park, Bloomington, Richfield, Edina, Minneapolis, Minnetonka and Wayzata handle their own inspections.)
Hennepin County has licensed pools since around 1980. Jurusik has been a pool inspector for 21 years.
“I think we are leaders in the pool inspection area,” said Jurusik, who also does food inspections. “This ensures the safety of the public.”
First, swimming pool operators are required to apply for a pool license from Hennepin County. Licenses are renewed each April pursuant to an on-site inspection.
Environmentalists check more than 20 items, including drains, water clarity, proper signage, safety equipment and fencing. They check for details including whether the depth transition line is at least 6 inches wide, is painted with a dark contrasting color, across the bottom and sidewalls of the pool.
Fencing around the pools must be at least 5 feet tall with a self-closing gate.
“Each person has to have a certified pool operator,” Jurusik said. “They go to pool safety training classes and must pass a test.”
By far the most common mistake is chlorine levels being either too high or too low. A clean pool shouldn’t smell strongly of chlorine. Jurusik said. A strong bleach smell actually means the chlorine is interacting with organic matter, he said.
The second-most common problem is a gate that doesn’t automatically close. The gates endure a lot of wear and tear. including children riding on them, and apartment owners need to check them regularly, Jurusik said.
After a pool passes inspection and is open for the season, inspectors usually revisit it later in the summer.
“We keep coming back and they know we are coming back, so they are maintaining the pools,” Jurusik said.
If a pool appears abandoned or unmaintained — even a private back-yard one — the county will order the owner to either fix or fill it. If that notice goes unheeded, in extreme cases, the county will declare it a public nuisance, hire crews to do the deconstruction and fill and then bill the owner, Jurusik said.
Safety beyond inspections
County officials caution that while regular inspections do help improve safety, water play has its risk, especially for young children who cannot swim.
“The county’s swimming pool inspection program focuses on maintenance, operation and safety from the pool’s design and operation perspective,” said Duane Hudson, program manager for Hennepin County Environmental Health.
Hudson said young swimmers and their parents need to talk about poolside safety.
A Minnesota Water Safety Coalition website — www.thinkdontsink.org — connects swimmers and their parents with safety tips, safety sessions and swimming lessons.
“There are a lot of resources out there,” Hudson said.
Still, tragic cases seem to make headlines each summer, like that of the 3-year-old girl who drowned last week in the Brooklyn Park apartment pool. She had been with siblings and other children, ages 7 to 15, who lived near the apartments and had gone to the pool to play. When they returned home, the girl wasn’t with them. A searcher found her body several hours later, around 1 a.m., after seeing a “shadow that looked like a toy” in the deep end of the pool.
Posted rules say the pool is for use by residents only, that an adult must accompany anyone under 16 and that hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. The posting also says no lifeguard is on duty.
That pool remains closed as the owners evaluate the piping and mechanical systems. They must have a reinspection to reopen.