Like everybody, when I first read what happened to Caleb Schwab, I felt the air leaving my lungs.
The 10-year-old boy died from an accident on Verrückt, the world’s tallest water slide at Schlitterbahn Kansas City Waterpark. Exact details of the incident remain murky for now, but it traumatized all who were exposed.
My thoughts went to a family suffering a loss most of us can’t comprehend, and to those working at the waterpark. I worry for the industry, too. The press has been aggressive: Outlets have talked about the delay of Verrückt’s opening and showed video footage of a raft going airborne during initial testing. Government oversight is scrutinized, with some asking if it should be more strict and take place on a federal level. And, most recently, a local television station called for the record-breaking Verruckt to be taken down.
The fact that Caleb Schwab was the son of a Kansas state legislator also gives pause. It brought up memories of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, named after the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, who drowned while entrapped in a residential spa. The incident likely did the most to raise household awareness of entrapment risks and spurred passage of the first federal pool and spa safety law. The law mandated certain measures to help prevent entrapment, including a stipulation that all drain covers sold in the U.S. meet a particular standard, and that virtually all existing commercial pools be retrofitted to comply.
In the nearly nine years since its passage, the Pool and Spa Safety Act has become just another fact of life. Some still disagree with certain details of the law or its implementation, while others consider it disproportionate. But most believe pools and spas are safer. The road there wasn’t particularly smooth. The industry had to meet a strict deadline, while slogging through vague language in certain portions of the law.
But the industry achieved a better relationship with government officials and code-writing bodies than ever before. They continue a dialogue to ensure pool and spa safety without placing undo burden on consumers or businesses. This occurred because industry associations decided to work with officials rather than against them. They got a seat at the table to effect language, combatting stereotypes about their motives along the way. Things became easier after the industry established two things: It cares about the health and safety of consumers; and nobody holds more collective expertise about the safety of pools and spas than those who make them.
It’s too soon to know if this issue will manifest on the regulatory side. People still need time to grieve and acknowledge the person who was lost. But the aquatics industry needs to involve itself early to make sure any such measures actually make waterparks safer, don’t invite violation through confusion or impracticality, and offer details that are not subject to misinterpretation.