When this incident happened, I had been handling chlorine and other pool chemicals for about 10 years. I thought I had the whole safety routine down pat. It wasn’t until I got a four-alarm wake up call that I realized, when it comes to chemicals, you can never be too careful.

After quite a busy week, I was prepping the pool for breakpoint chlorination. Normally, this is a task with little or no fanfare. That wasn’t the case on this night.

After my YMCA closed, I began the familiar process: Very dutifully, I grabbed the transfer bucket I used for any quantity less than 25 pounds and placed about 18 pounds of granular in the bucket. I walked on the pool deck, where I immediately put it down to handle some other minor issue. 

This is where it all started to go wrong.

I turned around to see the bottom of the bucket glowing bright red. Several ways I could have handled it passed through my mind … one of which was to toss it into the pool. This was an option I quickly ruled out because the bottom of the bucket could fail and send pounds of burning chlorine all over me. By this point, toxic smoke was billowing from the bucket. I had no choice but to evacuate the facility and call the fire department.

My head lifeguard handled the evacuation of the facility while I donned a respirator mask and secured the pool area. Thankfully, the evacuation only included departmental and janitorial staff. By the time the facility was evacuated, there was a thick cloud of toxic smoke covering the entire pool.

Needless to say, the only thing left to do was wait for the fire department’s hazmat team to dispose of the pungent, flaming, granular chlorine. The head lifeguard and I took this time to figure out what happened.

As it turns out, she had used that same bucket to apply an algaecide. We had a bona fide chemical reaction going on. Around the time the hazmat team entered the building in full SCBA regalia, my executive director arrived, shocked and slightly concerned. By this point, a strong chlorine odor had penetrated the entire 80,000 square feet of the facility. 

Once the hazmat team left the building, the fire department was quite generous in loaning several large fans to help purge the air. Watching the fire department air out the facility was a great time for my director and I to have quite a laugh at what happened. However, it was more of a nervous laugh because we both knew how badly it could have turned out. In the days following, the air cleared. The only reminder of the event was a large, circular burn mark on the concrete deck.

In retrospect, it turned out to be a funny moment. “The aquatics director set the concrete pool deck on fire.” Who wouldn’t laugh at that?

But it could have turned out quite differently. There were many ways this could have gone badly — from the bucket busting on me as I picked it up, to a more explosive reaction with the algaecide and granular chlorine, even respiratory distress for the head lifeguard and myself. And these are just small examples of what could have happened.