13 Investigates: Compliance with pool drain law varies by county

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INDIANAPOLIS - Pools are the summer spot where families make a splash... but there could be a hidden hazard beneath the surface.

"It's an unknown risk," says Jeff Madsen.  A potentially deadly problem at the bottom of the pool.  Children, adults, even strong swimmers sucked in by the drain in a pool or spa.

"The original drains were flat, and if a body covered it, it could get sucked in by the pump pressure, vacuum of the pool," according to Mike Mettler, the director of environmental health for the Indiana State Department of Health.

It can trap the victim on the drain, causing injury, disembowelment... even death.

Drain entrapment has scarred dozens of children.  A hot tub accident killed the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker.  So a federal law, passed in 2007 called The Virginia Graeme Baker Act prompted big changes to pools and spas in cities, apartments and hotels.

Now, new domed drain covers and back-up pumps are designed to keep swimmers safe.  But the rule may not be working as planned, and swimmers may not know what they're getting into.

As of last August, the State of Indiana decided counties are now in charge of inspecting pools.  And there are supposed to be consequences if the required drain covers are not installed.  According to Mettler, "If it's a pool that involves children swimming, then it should be closed by the county."

Eyewitness News checked pools across Central Indiana counties to see which have the safe drains, and which don't.  Many report all in compliance.

We visited pools across Marion County  Again, we found most to be in compliance.  Those that weren't had chains on the gates.  They did not get a license, and had to wait to open until they were fixed.  About a dozen Marion County pools  are still closed for the season because they could pose a danger.

In Johnson County, the health department is inspecting too.  "We're going to be asking for letters of certification so we can have everything legally established and documented," said Chris Menze of the Johnson County Health Department. 

But not all communities are as vigilant. In fact,  in Brown County, where tourists flock to hotels with pools and spas every year, no one inspects pool drain covers at all.

"Whether it's fair to say or not, the reality is that the pool cover issue. it's not a priority for us," said John Kennard, Environmental Health Supervisor for the Brown County Health Department.  Kennard says they want to be proactive, but with a staff of three, Brown County doesn't have the people - or the money - to check up on pool drains.

Shelby County is in the same boat.  A small department... no inspections.

"We don't have enough people to do probably the first inspection," said Kennard.  "Now you're asking for a second and third follow up, we're just limited.  It's easy to mandate for your counties to do things, the question is are you being realistic in what you're asking them to do with the finances that are available?"

We checked several pools and spas at Brown County hotels.  All told us they are compliant with the law, and do have those safe drain covers.  But the fact is, there are no trained inspectors making sure.  That leaves this tourist-driven area vulnerable.

The state acknowledges compliance with the law varies by county.  So what can you do.. The next time you take a dip in a public pool or spa?  Parent Tina Mattingly says "I wouldn't want my kid to swim in something if it wasn't safe."

Experts say before you swim, look for that tell-tale domed cover.  But also verify with the pool operator that it's compliant.

"They could ask for paperwork showing documentation that they have the proper safety equipment and devices installed," says Menze.

Look for proof that the pool is up to code.  If it's not, don't get in.  It's protection required by law to prevent a deadly danger, meant to keep your family safe.