HOUSTON -- Publicly-used swimming pools in Houston are drowning in safety problems, but the 11 News I-Team discovered city health inspectors often fail to inspect them as local law requires, and when they do, the law prohibits them from enforcing many violations.
And top city health department officials admit, it s putting Houston families in danger. Patrick Key is Bureau Chief of Consumer Health Services for the City of Houston.
11 News: Should it ever have gotten this bad?
11 News: Do you think when the city does not make timely inspections on an annual basis, that the risk increases for something bad to happen?
Key: Yes, yes I do.
According to an 11 News analysis of 3,875 public or semi-public pools in Houston, 1,301 have not been inspected by the city in one year, as required under the Houston Code of Ordinances. The city defines public and semi-public as pools as those in apartment complexes, condos, townhomes, fitness centers, parks, hotels and motels.
The I-Team drove to dozens of those past-due pools and found violation after safety violation, including exposed underwater lighting, fences that were falling apart, gates that didn t self-latch, gates that didn t latch at all, and emergency 911 call boxes with no phones and wires dangling inside.
Children s toys were present nearby at some of those pools, and unsupervised toddlers could easily gain access to the water.
That s not acceptable, said Key.
So how did it get this way?
The city has only five dedicated inspectors to cover those nearly 4,000 publicly-used pools. By comparison, the city of Fort Worth employs 13 inspectors, who share restaurant inspection duties, to check 900 publicly-used pools. In San Antonio, there are 28 inspectors to cover 1,300 accounts, with some accounts such as apartment complexes having more than one pool.
But the I-Team discovered manpower isn t the only shortfall facing Houston. Historically, the city s health department only assigned inspections if -- and only if -- pool owners paid an $85 fee to renew their annual pool permit application.
Key: So if somebody never paid for their pool, it could...
11 News: The city didn t come around.
Key: We didn t come around, that s right.
11 News: So an apartment complex owner could ignore the city and the city would never come around knocking on the door?
Key: That appeared to be what could have happened.
11 News: That seems pretty, pardon-me, bass-ackwards.
Key: Well, I, you know, when I took the program you know, I changed that.
Key took over the swimming pool inspection program in late March and said in addition to changing the way inspections are assigned, he has retrained four restaurant inspectors to temporarily do swimming inspections, in order to help reduce the massive backlog.
But when inspectors do come around, the I-Team identified a whole other pool of problems, such as enforcement of substandard drain covers.
Diego Rodriguez knows how life-threatening they can be to a swimmer. Last June at a Southwest Houston apartment complex, the 14-year-old became trapped underwater by the powerful force of an exposed suction line.
They had about five guys in there to pull him out and they couldn t do it, said his father, Victor Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said his son was underwater for an estimated 10 minutes, and the episode left scars over his entire back.
If it had a cover this wouldn t have happened, or what could happen to others when pools aren t maintained, his mother, Loriela Rodriguez, said.
Turns out, in December 2008, a new federal law went into effect requiring newly-designed, protective drain covers to be installed in all commercial pools. Called the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, it was named after the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III, who died in a hot tub accident.
But the I-Team spotted a big problem. The City of Houston has failed to update its 25-year-old local swimming pool law to include VGB language. As a result, even when inspectors find shoddy drain covers and write them up, they re forced to give that pool a passing grade.
11 News: So an inspector cites a problem that could the public in danger, but the pool owner goes on their merry way?
Key: Well it...
11 News: That, in effect, is what s going on right?
Key: I guess you could put it that way.
And pool owners are getting away with much more that s putting families at risk. The I-Team found other reports in which pools with no life ring buoys passed a city inspection. Pools without body hooks to snag a drowning victim also were passed. No depth markers? No emergency phone? No no diving signs? No problem. Those inspections were all passed as well.
Key: That s because those rules are state rules and are not part of the city ordinance.
11 News: Why aren t they part of city law?
Key: I can t answer that question.
All of it makes no sense to pool safety experts.
There is a problem and it needs to be corrected, said Douglas Dinkins, who owns a pool inspection company, sits on industry safety boards, and is part of a local government panel that reviews area drownings. They re saying the pool is safe when it s not, that s not responsible.
If the pool has certain violations, then it needs to be failed, it s that simple, he added.
But as it stands now, the property owner gets to go on about his business, with no harm, no foul.
Not until something happens, Dinkins said.