Manassas Journal Messenger | Staying on guard to keep pools clean
It will ruin even the most glorious of summer days — the unanticipated shutdown of the neighborhood pool.
Parents have spent a great deal of time gathering all the essentials — bathing suits, towels, sunscreen, snacks, goggles and pool toys — for a trip to the pool.
Once at the pool, children squirm and wiggle with anticipation while enduring the task of getting oiled up with sunscreen. The pool, and the fun it promises, is just steps away.
Then the summer spoiler happens.
Just as the kids are about to jump into the water, the lifeguards blow their whistles and announce that the pool is closing.
The scenario plays out during summer all over the Prince William area, at neighborhood and association pools as well as those under the auspices of the Prince William County Park Authority.
Sometimes the reason is obvious. A child has vomited. Sometimes it is not so obvious. Lifeguards learn that a child has had an accident in the pool.
Whatever the reason, it is the safety and health of all swimmers that guides the decision to close down and clean a pool; a process that can take 15 minutes or most of the day.
“If there is an accident in the pool, the code states you need to kill the bacteria immediately and keep the people out,” said Rick Hinton, Prince William Health District senior environmental health specialist.
Pool inspections are among his duties.
The state code does not say how long the pool cleaning may take. That decision is left to individual pool managers.
“It depends on the size of the pool, the turnover rate of the water and what happened,” said Lynn Fass, Prince William Health District supervisor for consumer services. “A pool could be closed for 15 minutes, 30 minutes or several hours.”
A severe accident may call for all the pool water to be cleaned through the pool’s pumps and filter systems.
With large pools such as WaterWorks at the Andrew Leitch Park in Dale City, the process could take six to eight hours.
“[Pool operators] have to get the people out, get [the contaminants out] and clean the pool. The pool stays closed until the manager feels it is safe,” Fass said.
“It can depend on how quickly we get to the situation and get it [such as feces] out,” said Tracy Hannigan, recreational service director for the Prince William Park Authority, which operates seven pools including two water parks
“Parents can be a big help in preventing this by being aware when their children need to go to the bathroom,” Fass said.
The Park Authority encourages parents to put non-potty-trained children in tight-fitting diapers, and they sell them at the pools.
“It helps,” Hannigan said. “We’ve had very few situations this year.”
“I think it’s a good policy ,but people do call and complain,” Fass said.
The health district got a call this summer from a resident complaining that her neighborhood association pool had been closed for six hours.
Public pools, including those run by motels, hotels and homeowners associations, must get a permit each year from the health district.
There are about 190 permitted pools in the Prince William area, including 10 in Manassas. There are 19 more pools either under construction or not yet in operation.
The four Prince William Health District inspectors are charged with doing at least three inspections each year on the seasonal pools. The first is done in May before the beginning of the season. A second is done shortly after pools open. A third is done just before the end of the season.
Additional inspections are done if someone calls the district’s Environmental Health division with a complaint.
“They are inspected as soon as possible,” Fass said.
The area’s year-round indoor pools such as those operated by the Park Authority at the Chinn Aquatics and Fitness Center and the Dale City Recreation Center, as well as the Freedom Aquatics and Fitness Center at George Mason University near Manassas, are the responsibility of a fifth health inspector.
The waterparks, Waterworks Waterpark and Splashdown Park at the Ben Lomond Park near Manassas, also fall into the seasonal inspection rotation.
During a routine inspection of Waterworks, Hinton first met with pool staff and checked their paperwork. Pool operators need to maintain detailed records on the chlorine levels and pH levels of their pools as well as readings of the pump pressures.
Chlorine levels need to be within a certain range to kill bacteria, algae and most viruses.
PH, the measure of acid or alkaline level in the water, is also important. If the level is too high or too low the chlorine and other chemicals won’t work properly.
Cloudy water, a strong smell of chlorine and eye irritation that many people blame on chlorine is really caused by an improper pH. Low pH also can damage and corrode the pool’s surface.
Health guidelines indicate that chlorine and pH levels should be tested every two hours. The Park Authority tests its pools every hour.
Hinton also checked the levels himself. He continued his inspection by walking around the entire waterpark that has a capacity of 500 people. He made sure the lifeguards had the proper equipment and that the amenities of the pools, including the slides, steps and walkways, were in safe condition.
The shower and bathroom facilities also are inspected.
“We want to make sure that everything is working and clean,” Fass said. Pools must post a warning sign that those with communicable diseases should not enter a pool.
Hinton checked the electrical work as well, including pumps and filters.
After checking the WaterWorks First Aid room and finding all the proper equipment was in place, Hinton gave the pool a clean bill of health.
“We really don’t have many problems with pools in Prince William, especially the larger ones,” Hinton said.
The most common problem that health inspectors encounter is a low chlorine level. Hinton said he would then close the pool temporarily so that the proper level can be restored, something that does not take long.
The eyes of the public are needed to maintain healthy pools, officials said.
“Call us. We encourage people to do this. It is for their safety and the safety of their families,” Fass said.
“If something doesn’t seem right, let us know,” Fass said.
“We will respond to these concerns,” Hinton said.
To report a concern about a pool, or any other environmental health concern, call the Prince William Health District at (703) 792-7320.