Strict usage rules at one city's pools are designed to prevent drowning accidents among children.

Found floating face down and unconscious in a Providence, R.I., city pool on a balmy day in August 2009, 9-year-old Jameson Auciel went into a coma and died four days later. In its investigation of the incident, the city determined that Auciel and his 8-year-old cousin Gamaelle Bazelais, who was also found face down but regained consciousness after a five-day coma, were two of approximately 70 patrons using McGrane Pool, which at the time was being overseen by three lifeguards and nine other staff members. It was more than adequate staffing for the situation, according to the city's own guidelines.

The problem was that the two children, along with Auciel's 5-year-old brother - none of whom knew how to swim and none of whom were under the supervision of a parent or guardian - were allowed in the pool in the first place.

It's a problem the city set out to address this summer through a set of strict rules regarding pool usage among children - rules that have been criticized by some people as being too preventive. But the mayor's office contends that the new measures provide a comprehensive, enforceable framework to help streamline the city's recreation program and, more important, keep accidents such as last year's from recurring.

"We did an instant review of our rules after the tragedy happened last year," says the city's director of operations, Alix Ogden, adding that the safety precautions in place during the tragedy were, although inadequate, actually being followed. "We're also in the process of merging our parks and our recreation departments. As part of that process, we ended up sitting down during the winter and thinking, 'We have six pools and nine waterparks. How do we set up a recreation management system around all our water facilities that lets people know about those facilities and standardizes the procedures within them?'"

To that end, Ogden's staff began researching city- and town-wide pool rules in place at agencies throughout the region and country. "Based on the research we did, it looks like each city and town struggles with this individually, doing the best they can given their own circumstances," says Ogden. "We didn't find a lot of national-level guidance."

After its research, the city adopted the following rules:

  • Upon their first visit to a city pool, all patrons - adults and children alike - must take a swim test. To pass, they must swim the width of the pool without touching the bottom. Results are recorded.
  • Based on the swim test results, patrons are given color-coded wristbands on each subsequent visit to a city pool. Wristbands identify swimmers, non-swimmers and adult guardians of non-swimmers.
  • All children under 42 inches tall (3 ½ feet) are prohibited from using city pools. (Although the city's pools and pool decks come in various shapes and sizes, all shallow ends are 42 inches deep, while deep ends bottom out at 54 inches.)
  • Children and all non-swimmers between 42 and 54 inches tall must be accompanied by an adult swimmer.
  • Children who are 54 inches or taller must pass the swim test to be admitted without an accompanying adult.
  • Adults are prohibited from accompanying more than two children per visit.
  • Bathing suits or shorts with a T-shirt are required.
  • All patrons must provide and sign emergency contact information upon entering the pool.

After the rules were published at the beginning of this swimming season, some aquatics experts leveled criticism toward the city for going too far in excluding young children. "The height factor totally eliminates young families from enjoying the public pool," Robert Ogoreuc, incoming president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, told the Providence Journal in July. "It goes from one extreme to another, from letting too many people in to not letting anyone in. It's unfortunate, but I think they will be eliminating a whole user group. What happens if I'm a [single] parent with one kid under 42 inches and one over 54 inches? How do I split the time?"

Ogden, for one, says the rules remain feasible since city pools staff can direct non-qualifying patrons to any of Providence's sprayground-style waterparks, many of which have opened in the past five years. "That's a part of our recreation system that we've been focused on expanding, so families of all ages or without swimming abilities can use those facilities," she says. "We're trying to avoid the situation where, frankly, our lifeguards are serving as babysitters, rather than water safety personnel."

The city has also fielded some complaints for qualifying patrons based on height, rather than age, but Ogden contends that enforcing age-based rules simply isn't viable, for the fact that "we don't have kids walking around the city with photo IDs showing their ages."

To augment the effectiveness of the new rules, the city also developed a new training program and management structure for its lifeguards, creating a higher-paid "senior lifeguard" position in the process. "In Rhode Island, we're competing with the lifeguard staffing at our state beaches," Ogden says. "Our pay structure wasn't really competitive with that, so we created the new position and tried to make our lifeguarding opportunities more attractive to a wider variety of people."

The new pay structure, wristbands, revised rules signage and a small marketing campaign - fliers outlining the rules were sent home with every elementary school student a week before pools opened for the season - required very little capital outlay, according to Ogden, although developing the rules and educating patrons on them has demanded a lot of staff time.

After the first two days of the season, when the rules indeed took many pool patrons by surprise, Ogden says there has been very little backlash from the public. "Most of the comments we've received have been from people who are really glad we're taking these steps," she says. "The people who seemed to be most angry were those who were just interested in dropping their kids off at the pool for the afternoon, whether or not their kids could swim. And that's exactly what we were hoping to get away from."