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Danger at the pool drain

Another place to think about pool safety: the drain.

A swimmer's body, clothing or hair can become trapped in drain or suction outlets that aren't properly covered, holding the swimmer underwater.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 74 cases of body, limb or hair entrapment from 1999 to 2007 in pools and spas. Nine resulted in deaths. The Pool Safety Consortium reports that 75 percent of entrapments involve children, with a median age of 9.

Lorenzo Peterson, 14, suffered brain damage in 2000 when he got sucked into a pool drain at a North Miami apartment complex. He went into a permanent vegetative state, then died four years later.

"Eight people jumped into the pool to create a human chain to pull him out and they could not -- until someone finally turned off the pump,'' said Michael Haggard, an attorney who represented Lorenzo's family. They had to break down the locked door of a shack that housed the turn-off switch.

A new law mandates that public pools and spas be retrofitted with approved drain covers or anti-entrapment systems by December.

Haggard said he'd like to see all private residential pools -- not just the public ones -- install cut-off switches.

"What about all the existing pools in my neighborhood and yours that are being grandfathered in?'' he said.

Florida homeowners with older pools should at least have their drains inspected for safety. New covers cost $30 to $50.

"They should be the dome-shaped type not the old flat type,'' said Louie Delaware, The Home Safety Guru. Some are also scallop-shaped.

"Make certain no one ever uses a pool or hot tub that has a broken or missing drain cover," Delaware said, adding that even a small hole can create a powerful suction.

Suction -- about 500 pounds of force for an eight-inch main drain operating on a standard pump -- makes it difficult for an entrapped swimmer to escape or even be freed by rescuers. In many cases, the pump needs to be turned off immediately.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, D-Weston, who helped pass the new legislation said, "Parents should know that simple safety measures for their pool or spa could very well prevent their own child from being lost through such nightmare scenarios as accidental drowning or entrapment."

Swimmers with shoulder-length hair should pin up their hair in a bun or use a swim cap to avoid having their hair entangled in a suction outlet, Delaware said.

Gerald Little, a rescue diver with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue who co-founded the Little Swimmers program, said parents should monitor where the kids are swimming, especially in baby pools, where they can sit on drains.

Delaware said every adult or teenager should know where the pump shut-off switch is and how to use it.

Some new pools and spas have more than one drain to help relieve the pressure from a single outlet, Delaware said.

"Some people are now putting in a safety vacuum release system," Delaware said. "If the vacuum pressure goes too high, it automatically turns the pump off. So if the drain was completely covered or if a child swam over a drain cover and got sucked into it, the system turns off."

Vac-Alert Industries manufactures such systems, with testing facilities in Fort Pierce.

Paul Pennington a founding member of the Pool Safety Consortium and president of Vac-Alert, said such systems cost about $500 and take 30 minutes to install. They can detect when somebody has been held down to the drain and break the vacuum in a millisecond.