By Haley Walker, Alice Rossignol and Emma Ogutu
Maintaining a pool to be healthy and safe is not easy.
And Kevin Hoard would know.
As a certified pool operator at Michigan State University, he’s had 70 hours of official pool maintenance training.
“It updates us on the current codes, concerns and disease prevention,” Hoard said. “It makes sure we’re in compliance with the law.”
But not all pool operators are trained like Hoard.
Each state has its own definition of who should maintain pools. In Michigan, it could be anyone.
Michigan is among 21 states where no pool operator training is required. Out of the other states, 20 require certification through the National Pool and Spa Foundation while nine require some other form of training.
Of course, many operators may voluntarily get training. In a recent survey of 114 of the 130 facilities with pools in Ingham County, 53 reported having a certified operator and 26 facilities did not. Three refused to answer.
The other respondents said they didn’t know. In fact, employees at 17 facilities said that they didn’t know what the difference was between a certified or non-certified operator or if they had one.The National Pool and Spa Foundation defines a certified pool operator as someone who passes its 14 to 16-hour certification course.
The course trains operators to calculate water surface area, depth and volume. Most importantly, it teaches operators to mix and administer the right amounts of pool chemicals.
The course manual includes lessons on how to maintain water balance and circulation. Procedures for when bodily fluids enter a pool, keeping records of water testing, and heating and air circulation are also outlined.
“Microbiology, engineering, public health, mathematics and these are not all talents that every person has intuitively, so if we are going to have people using aquatic facilities, they have obligations to make sure whoever is running them minimizes the risk for those who are using them, ” said Tom Lachocki, chief executive officer of the National Pool and Spa Foundation.
A case where 24 people were injured in Nebraska due to a poorly maintained pool was studied in the Journal of Environmental Health. Pools without certified pool operators are twice as likely to have pH and chlorine violations, the journal reported.
Even though some operators like MSU’s Hoard get training, certification is optional in Michigan. But according to Michigan guidelines, an owner must ensure that someone is trained to take care of the pool.
Who they are trained by or how many hours of training they need is not defined.
“The cleaning guy may be good at cleaning or fixing things but not the pools,” said Paul Sisson head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public pool division. “That’s often a weak link.”
Training a pool operator can cost hundreds of dollars and the certification must be renewed every five years.
Whether a pool has a certified pool operator is sometimes based on what the company can afford, Sisson said.
The operator course is a 2-day class that ranges between $250 and $350. All instructors teach from the materials created by the National Pool and Spa Foundation. Local and state codes for pool safety are also taught.
The foundation says this information is important to properly maintain a pool.
“Ultimately, when general citizens are placed in a position where there are potential hazards, the people who operate the facilities should have some training of those hazards and know how to manage them,” Lachocki said.
MSU employs two certified pool operators for its four pools. Three of the pools are open year-round and are used by swimmers from the East Lansing and Lansing communities. An operator is on call 24-hours.
Hoard, who’s been working for Michigan State for 28 years has taken the certification class five times.
“There’s a lot more involved to take care of pools than people think,” said Hoard. “It keeps two of us full-time, sometimes we’re overwhelmed. There are days we’re running around all the time- we’ll skip a break or something.”
“There’s new information every time I go, it keeps me updated,” he said.
Both Hoard and Stanley Wilson, the other certified pool operator who has worked at MSU since 1997, say that they could not do their jobs as well without the certification.
Michigan State University isn’t the only Ingham County public institution with certified pool operators.
All the public schools in Ingham County had certified pool operators, although some school districts have one operator for multiple pools, according to a recent survey. The Lansing school district’s six pools share one operator.
“For someone brand new and if you haven’t been around pools or had a mentor, you should go to the class,” said Bob Oliver, Haslett High School aquatics facility director.
The Haslett district doesn’t require a certification for its one pool, but the Holt district requires certification of its two pool operators for two pools.
“They have to be trained within 90 days when I get a new person,” said Jon Hall, facilities supervisor of Holt schools.
Both Haslett and Holt school districts both test water quality manually with test strips and with automated equipment.
“Even though we have electronic measurements we check it the old-fashion way with test strips too,” said Oliver.
These school districts have not had any recent water quality problems, according to 2008 inspection report from Ingham County Health Department.
Budget cuts however are having an impact on facilities with pools. Pools are expensive to maintain already without the added cost of certifying a pool operator.
MacDonald Middle School recently closed its pool because of budget cuts.
“I think you will find in other districts that those expenditures are going to also be looked at a little more closely,” said Richard Pugh, director of finance for East Lansing Public Schools.
Michelle Hlvasa, an epidemiologist of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says it’s important that people are aware of the status of their local pools. She recommends that they ask if the pool has a certified pool operator and that they learn about the kinds of illnesses that can be contracted from the pools.
Swimmers themselves can test public pools for bacteria using test strips bought from local hardware stores. Some stores also sell pool-testing kits. Local pool codes and standards can be found at local health departments.
“We expect this at restaurants,” Hlvasa said. “Why don’t we expect this of our water that we are sharing with others?”