?by Nate Traylor As of this month, defibrillators are required at all public pools in Maryland and, if Debbie Neagle-Freed has her way, the law will become a federal mandate.
Earlier this year, the governor signed Connor’s Law, named after Neagle-Freed’s 5-year-old son who drowned at a country club swimming pool. Pool operators statewide had until October to comply; however, local versions of the law already have been in place. Those requirements take a more far-reaching stance, with several counties even requiring automatic external defibrillators in semiprivate pools.
The state law could someday be toughened as well. “They just wanted to get the municipals on the books first, then go for the semiprivate [pools] down the road,” said paramedic Jeremy Gruber, who testified before the legislature in favor of House Bill 364.
In 2006, Connor Freed was found floating in 5 feet of water beneath an empty lifeguard’s chair. Lifeguards purged his system of water, but he was in a state of cardiac arrest. Though an AED was available, lifeguards told a 911 operator they weren’t allowed to use it because they weren’t trained. (Neagle-Freed and her husband, Thomas Freed, won a $4 million lawsuit against the company that provided the lifeguards, though it was reduced to approximately $1 million due to a state mandate that puts a cap on noneconomic damages.)
American Red Cross has since required that lifeguards be trained to operate defibrillators. But few aquatics facilities were equipped with the devices. “The reason for that was a lot of people thought you couldn’t use them on a drowning victim,” Neagle-Freed said. The common misconception was that the device, which sends an electrical shock to the heart, could do further harm to a soaking wet victim.
After consulting cardiologists and expert witnesses, Neagle-Freed became convinced an AED could have saved her son’s life. In 2007, she launched the nonprofit Connor Cares Foundation, which donates defibrillators to aquatics facilities. She also began to work with public officials to add more layers of protection at pools across the state.
In 2010, she helped a member of the Maryland House of Delegates introduce a bill that would have effectively doubled the lifeguard-to-swimmer ratio. While it failed to get support, the AED mandate caught on at the local level.
Neagle-Freed is already seeing her efforts save lives. An 8-year-old boy who was found unconscious in the bottom of a pool was rescued with a defibrillator her foundation donated just weeks prior to the incident.
“Nobody wants to lose their child, of course. That’s the worst thing to happen,” said Neagle-Freed who owns a salon also named after Connor. “But you can turn something negative into awareness. To know lives are being saved makes you feel good.”
Maryland was only the starting block. Neagle-Freed is reaching out to Congress while inspiring similar efforts in other states. “It took about five years to pass the state law,” she said. “It might take another five to pass a federal law.”
Delegate Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20), who sponsored the bill, believes few would oppose an amendment to make it more inclusive. “My anecdotal sense is that a lot of large complexes, and a lot of modern ones with new pools, may already have [AEDs] and wouldn’t be impacted at all,” he said. As an incentive, owners of commercial facilities could even get reductions in their liability insurance. The Maryland Insurance Administration testified that larger properties where there’s a statistically higher chance of a drowning or heart attack could save thousands of dollars on insurance if they have AEDs on site, Hucker said.
Meanwhile, pool management firms have been helping clients meet current requirements. Most property owners are happy to comply, but some are hesitant. AEDs cost $1,200 to $2,000, must be registered with the state health department and can be subject to routine inspections. “If you were to have an accident and the pads were out of date, that’s a potential liability,” said Phillip Carter, regional director of Rockville, Md.-based Community Pool Service. The firm has been selling the devices and managing AED programs at pool facilities statewide.