In August this year, an eight-year-old girl died by drowning in the swimming pool of an apartment complex in Ambattur. This is not an isolated incident. According to recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 9.3% of accidental deaths in India (36,362 deaths) were caused by drowning in 2021. Metropolitan cities like Chennai have many swimming pools, including those in apartment complexes. However, many of them do not comply with basic safety protocols, leading to accidental drownings.
The role of the authorities at present is limited to granting permissions with the promise of conducting periodic checks. The onus of safety also falls on the owners and users of the pool.
Lifeguards and swimming coaches at swimming pools
The safety requirements for swimming pools across the city are outlined in the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies (ULB) (Regulations and Monitoring of Swimming Pool) Rules, 2015.
Every swimming pool in any establishment should have a pool manager who will be held responsible for the safe operation and maintenance of all the facilities and upkeep of all the life safety measures of the swimming pool. They are accountable for any lapse.
Similarly, lifeguards and swimming coaches or instructors should be appointed at all swimming pools except for swimming pools in single-dwelling units. The minimum number of lifeguards is two for a pool size of 150 square metres and below, and a proportionate increase for larger pools.
In the case of swimming pools in educational institutions, in addition to the lifeguard, a competent swimming coach/instructor should also be provided, who has adequate knowledge of first aid and artificial respiration. The pools are classified under four categories, based on their size. The minimum number of lifeguards varies according to each category.
Qualification for the coach, instructor and lifeguard
Swimming instructor: A person possessing a National Institute of Sports Certificate (6-week course) in swimming issued by the National Institute of Sports is eligible for appointment as a Swimming Instructor to teach swimming to beginners and novices.
Swimming coach: A person possessing a National Institute of Sports diploma in coaching (Swimming), issued by the National Institute of Sports, is eligible for appointment as a swimming coach to coach swimmers for competitive swimming training and for teaching novices.
Lifeguard: For appointment as a lifeguard, a person must have a minimum qualification of 8th standard pass, a pool lifeguard course certificate conducted by Rashtriya Life Saving Society –India (RLSS) and experience in Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Procedure.
The practical ability and alertness of the Instructors, coaches and lifeguards in rescuing children during emergency times should be tested before they are actually deployed. The Fire and Rescue Service personnel must verify the abilities of the lifeguards, instructors and coaches before the grant of the No Objection Certificate for operating the swimming pools.
The duty time of swimming coaches/instructors and lifeguards should not be more than eight hours in a day and not more than four hours at a stretch. A sufficient number of reserve lifeguards with prescribed qualifications must also be made available.
The pool managers should maintain a register of enrolment of persons for allowing them to use the swimming pool, with restrictions for children and those with any chronic or contagious diseases. Those who have consumed alcohol must also not be allowed in the pools.
Tarun Murugesh, lifeguard instructor and master trainer of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Rashtriya Life Saving Society (RLSS), the organisation chosen by the government for lifeguard certification, noted that the existing rules were framed after proper research.
However, non-compliance with the rules leads to accidental deaths due to drowning. “Many people who went swimming twice or thrice a week before the COVID-19 induced lockdown have started to go swimming almost every day now. This means that there are higher chances of untoward incidents especially given that not many apartment complexes have recruited qualified lifeguards and other personnel,” he says.
“While there should be one lifeguard/pool attendant for every 25 swimmers ideally, many apartments do not have even one lifeguard”, he says.
Pointing to the aforementioned incident in Ambattur where the security guard helped in pulling out the child, he noted that anyone could pull out the drowning person. “That is only part of rescue but when it comes to revival, the rescuer should know the right recovery position and how to perform CPR. In most cases, they have to continue performing CPR even in the ambulance and ensure the patient is taken to the nearby hospital on time. All this will make a difference in terms of saving lives,” he says.
Safety features in swimming pools
As per the norms, the owner or occupier of the pool must provide necessary life-saving devices in adequate numbers such as first aid boxes, oxygen cylinders, breathing equipment, artificial respirator, buoys for beginners, life jackets, life belts, stretchers, life-saving hook, Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation pocket mask, rescue tubes and lifeguard stand for pools of a certain size that mandate these requirements.
The owner or occupier of the pool must also take adequate precautions to prevent harassment of women.
A general purpose first aid kit should be provided to handle minor bumps, bruises and sprains. It should be prominently mounted in the swimming pool enclosure, or a sign stating its location should be posted near the swimming pool. The first-aid kit should be accessible when the swimming pool is open.
In addition to the first aid kit, an emergency response kit should be provided which includes items like an emergency survival blanket, offset bandage compress, rescue breather and Ambu bags among other items.
A telephone that is accessible in the vicinity of the swimming pool, in or within 90 m of the pool enclosure should also be made available and a list of telephone numbers of the local police, state police, fire department, physician, ambulance service and a hospital, should be displayed in a conspicuous place near the telephone. The location of the emergency telephone must be displayed in the swimming pool area.
Where apartment swimming pools falter
Many apartment complexes and other establishments fail to make available the above features that would drastically improve safety in the city’s swimming pools. In many cases, even the first aid kits have expired products.
H Karthik, a resident of an apartment complex in KK Nagar, said that he was unaware of the safety standards required for pools and the appointment of pool personnel. “Since I have been swimming since my childhood, I only look for pools with clean water. The pool in my apartment complex is not maintained well and so I usually go to private pools,” he says.
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The main reason for such a lax attitude towards safety, according to Tarun, is that when the apartment complexes are built, they obtain permission for constructing the swimming pools which is a one-time, lifetime permission. Even if changes are made to the pool features after obtaining permission, there is no mechanism to audit it.
“These swimming pools are maintained by the builders for the first year and then handed over to the owners who have no idea of the protocols. They install colourful lights for aesthetic purposes, while the main reason for proper lighting in pools is to ensure clear water for easy identification of drowning. Many owners are not aware of these,” he says.
Going forward, Tarun suggested that the onus of ensuring safety should be placed on the owners. “The swimming pools should be given a short-term license and the owners should be responsible for renewing them every year. This is helpful in yearly audits in terms of both structure and safety,” he said, adding that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Chennai Corporation officials should also conduct surprise inspections once in a while.
Holding violators accountable
On paper, the law mandates that those who intend to construct a swimming pool must obtain permission from the local body officials and a No Objection Certificate from a Committee chaired by the Commissioner of Police, Chennai City and Chennai Metropolitan Area and has the Member Secretary of the CMDA as a Competent Authority.
When the executive authorities conduct random checks of pools in the city, if any violation comes to light, the use of the pool would be suspended and a show cause notice issued to the owners/occupiers of the pool. A week’s time would be provided to the owner/occupier to respond to the show cause notice. The owners/occupiers of the pool are expected to make the structure compliant with the regulations within the time period specified in the notice.
At present, the penalty for non-compliance is a paltry sum of Rs 100 and suspension of usage of the pool until the violations are rectified. However, in case of accidents or death due to non-compliance, a police complaint is filed against the owners/occupiers or contractors — in case the pool maintenance is leased out on contract — and they are held liable.
Following the Ambattur incident, officials from CMDA said that more random checks in a periodical manner would be conducted to prevent such untoward incidents.
Swimming pools have become a key feature in the marketing of many residential properties in the city. However, such features also come with a price. If the safety measures are not in place, the price you pay becomes a life. To prevent such loss of lives due to drowning in swimming pools, ensuring safety standards through the vigilance of pool users and frequent checks by the authorities is the way ahead.