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Statute leads to confusion

The idea behind Florida's Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act seemed simple enough:

An alarm, pool cover, self-latching door or 54-inch-high barrier for all new pools would protect young children from drowning.

Who could oppose that? Drowning, after all, is the leading cause of death in Florida for children ages 1 to 4.

In real life, however, the law has proved chaotic since taking effect Oct. 1. Just ask Spring Hill pool builder Tom Rosselli of Penguin Pools and Spas.

"There's no uniformity throughout the counties," said Rosselli, who works in Hernando and surrounding counties. "The counties are adopting their own interpretations of what it says."

Consider this:

In Hernando County, development director Grant Tolbert has ruled out any alarm that has an on-off switch because the law says an alarm must make an "audible, continuous" sound when any door or window leading to the pool is opened or left ajar.

"It's supposed to be continuous once the contacts are broken," Jack Tipton, assistant director of the Pinellas County Building Department, said in agreement. "The ones they would turn off and stay off would not work. . . . The law is pretty specific. It's fairly clear-cut."

Pasco County building official Tim Moore, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with the cheaper alarm that homeowners can control with a switch.

"I'm doing my best to follow the statute as it's written," Moore said, referring to the exact language that Tolbert cited. "The statute says essentially that my inspector has to hear an alarm when he opens the door."

The bill's Senate sponsor, Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, contends Hernando and Pinellas use the right interpretation. "The law doesn't authorize an on-off switch," she said.

Pool builder and state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, reads the law otherwise: "The language in the bill does not prohibit an alarm that you can turn on and off."

It raises a question for Maureen Kish, owner of Leisure Time Pools and Spas in Brooksville: If the people who adopted the bill cannot even agree what it means, how can the general public know what to do?

Her customers, most of whom do not have children around and do not want to follow the law, are angry, Kish said. One man spent $500 on an alarm system only to see his pool fail inspection because he could disarm the alarm before the door shuts.

"It's been confusion since Oct. 1," Kish said.

On that point, she and Tolbert agree. Tolbert lamented the lack of guidance from the state, which he said left him no choice but to adopt one of the strictest interpretations of the act anywhere in Florida.

He is even contemplating fines for contractors who fill pools at occupied homes before the county approves the selected safety devices. Some contractors have argued that they need to fill the pool to prevent it from popping out of the ground, and that the homeowner is responsible for the barrier or alarm.

Tolbert argues that the pool builder has the permit and ultimately is accountable.

But if other counties read the law differently on any of the fine points, he wondered, "is it really effective?"

With similar comments coming to her from all over the state, Wasserman Schultz is planning to make amends. She said she will propose to her colleagues that the state building commission be charged with interpreting the act, and that its rulings become part of the new state building code.

"They would be the final arbiter as far as what type of alarm qualifies" and other gray areas, the senator said, adding that she has been talking with commission leaders about how they might proceed if her idea passes through the Legislature this session.

"There have been problems," she acknowledged.

A codified statewide standard would solve many of the law's problems, Kish said. "Before this law was passed, that was what everybody in the state was pushing (Wasserman Schultz) to do," she said.

It might not get at the heart of the original intent, though, Rosselli suggested. Anyone can put in a safety system, he said, but anyone also can remove it.

"I see the state putting the parenting in the hands of an electronic device or a fence and not in the hands of the parents," he said. These safety measures "are only as good as the people who maintain them."

That may be true, Russell said. "But the bottom line is, if (the law) positively impacts the number of drownings, then it accomplishes what we wanted to accomplish."

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