Citizens question Albemarle pool policies

Four citizens appeared at Monday’s Albemarle City Council meeting to express concerns with current policy on personal flotation devices (PFDs) at municipal pools.

The current policy, in effect for more than 30 years, disallows the use of such devices by individual swimmers, but a recent update, known as the “Adaptive and Inclusive Flotation Device Policy,” does allow citizens to apply, by completing a form, for permission (with specific limitations) to use a PFD in the pool.

“The swimmer must have a caregiver with them and within reach, and must stay in the shallowest part of the pool,” said Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Kiser.

The purpose of the policy, according to Kiser, is safety-based.

“We hold a lot of liability by opening two pools each summer, and we take that liability and those risks seriously,” she said, noting that allowing swimmers to use PFDs is operating under the premise that such devices will always perform as intended.

“With life jackets, you are assuming that every time a person puts on a life jacket, the life jacket is going to work,” Kiser said, adding, “life jackets and personal flotation devices are not a substitute for swim lessons or parental supervision in the pool.”

Should PFDs be allowed, pool staff would have to take on the responsibility of supervising and managing the devices used, Kiser said.

“We currently don’t have enough staff to regulate that,” she said.

Kiser also noted that swimmers wearing life jackets can obstruct a lifeguard’s ability to adequately see his/her assigned area of the pool.

“Each guard is responsible for a specific zone of the pool, and life jackets and their bulkiness can hinder their vision and account of that area,” she said.

Kiser described the responsibility for swimmer safety as two-fold.

“The first is with our public and making sure that we are not serving as a day-care, but that we are serving as a public pool. Next, our lifeguards are our last defense…anyone’s last defense…and we don’t want them to have to go in and save.”

Kim Stotesbury, a real estate educator who lives on River Run Road, was first to express concerns with the policy, describing it as an example of the principle of “disparate impact.”

“This is a policy which on the face appears neutral, but causes disproportionate harm to members of a protected class,” she explained, stating her observation that the PFD policy “creates a disparate impact on low-income families,” including disabled individuals, senior citizens and people of color.

“I believe if we look at the demographics, we will see that these people often are undereducated and less informed, less likely to have access to the internet to download a form, and I would imagine that the parents of some of these low income children don’t have the ability to read the form or to fill it out,” Stotesbury said.

“I believe these are the people who need our pools most, so I’m here to speak for them,” she said, adding, “the middle class and upper middle class have private pools.”

Stotesbury also related an incident involving her daughter and grandchildren in which her daughter assisted a young swimmer in an Albemarle pool who was struggling. As a result, her daughter now refuses to patronize Albemarle pools, instead attending those who allow US Coast Guard approved PFDs.

“No child should be put at unnecessary risk in a public pool,” she said. “The current policy is unsafe, I believe it is unreasonable, and it does create a disparate impact.”

Morgan Perez of N.C. Highway 740 expressed concern with both the logic of the policy and the application procedure for using a PFD.

“This (the application procedure) eliminates the possibility for a family to show up at the pool and enjoy the use of life jackets the same day,” she stated.

Perez also expressed that the stipulations described in the policy “do not make sense to me,” before asking what the criteria for denial or approval of PFD usage would be.

“Why not have life jackets available at each pool for anyone who wants to use them and eliminate the form?” she asked, stating her view of the policy as “outdated, careless and dangerous.”

Rachel Hoover of Woodhurst Lane appeared next, and clarified that her comments in support of PFDs would be limited to “Coast Guard approved water safety devices, commonly referred to as life jackets, ‘puddle jumpers’ or PFDs,” as opposed to inflatable, non-approved devices.

Hoover also identified what she termed as her “end goal.”

“(This is) free access to these flotation devices for everyone at all public pools in Albemarle,” she said.

Hoover proceeded to counter a number of points in the city’s policy on PFDs, as well as the Adaptive and Inclusive Flotation Device Policy, terming the policy as a “half-considered solution,” and citing statements found on the US Coast Guard, American Red Cross and other water safety websites.

“Every single one of these organizations recommended access to life jackets as an easy way to encourage water safety,” she said.

Penny Hoover (Rachel’s daughter) then offered a brief personal experience supporting her mother’s viewpoint.

“I have a little brother, and he isn’t a very strong swimmer,” she said, relating an instance in which he once jumped into a neighbor’s pool.

“I had to rush over and save him from drowning because I was closest to the pool,” Penny recalled, “but if he had been wearing a life jacket or puddle jumper, he would have been okay no matter what.”

Council members did not take immediate action.

“I haven’t heard anything about this,” said Councilman Chris Bramlett, “so I don’t know that I’d be prepared to make a decision tonight.”

Mayor Ronnie Michael asked that council “take the matter under consideration” before making a decision, keeping in mind that a decision should be made as soon as possible.

“We’ve got to do whatever it is that keeps the children and the folks in our pools safe,” added Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall, while praising the work of Albemarle Parks and Recreation over the years in providing swimming instruction.

Councilman David Hunt asked that the matter be re-addressed at the next meeting.

“I would just like to say that I would like to see something done at the next meeting,” Hunt said.

City of Albemarle Parks & Recreation Pool Flotation Device Policy

Flotation devices are not allowed at City of Albemarle Parks & Recreation pools at any time.

The United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, which approves personal flotation devices and regulates and requires their use in boats, does not make a recommendation that personal flotation devices be used for recreational swimming. Personal flotation devices are designed primarily as life-saving devices, to provide flotation in case of accident or emergency.

Youth swimmers who utilize personal flotation devices as a recreational aid often do not have the weight in their legs, the muscle control or the knowledge to stay upright with a preserver.

Children also become dependent on the preserver, and when floating into deeper water, lack the ability to maneuver back to water shallow enough where they can touch bottom.

Personal flotation devices tend to encourage children to venture into deeper water or further from the wall, than their ability would permit otherwise. This situation poses a danger in itself. Additionally, the preserver gives the child and his or her parents a false feeling of safety and security.

The false sense of security created by flotation device(s) may encourage an adult to leave a child unattended, which should be discouraged.

Personal flotation devices also present challenges for lifeguards:

• Lifeguards have no control over the types of preservers being worn — quality, fit or efficacy.

• A non-swimmer would have a difficult, if not hazardous, situation attempting to regain buoyancy in deep water after slipping off, or out of, the flotation device(s).

• Flotation devices may distract a lifeguard from his/her guarding duties, to inspect and make sure that all straps and other devices are secure on the person entering the water.

• Inflatable devices are easily punctured or torn by teeth, fingernails and foreign objects.

• Liability could be placed on the city or its employees should a flotation device(s) fail.

EXCEPTION: The use of flotation devices is limited to those individuals who have a disability which necessitates the use of a flotation device. A parent or guardian must complete the Adaptive and Inclusion Modification Request form. The completed form must be reviewed and approved by Albemarle Parks and Recreation staff prior to the use of a pool flotation device.