Algarve swimming pool safety … and the lack of it!

At present, there are no legally obligatory safety regulations for private swimming pools in Portugal. Many other countries have regulations in place, some more stringent than others, Australia leading the field, followed by USA, France and Spain. It is an unfortunate fact that several children under five years of age are lost every year in Portugal, not only from swimming pools but lakes, dams, rivers, wells and water storage tanks.

Here in the Algarve, the majority of fatal water accidents are caused by swimming pools, both in rental and private houses. Most slip by, unreported, but it is a sad fact that 4-6 child deaths per year occur in Algarve swimming pools and other water hazards.

Not commonly known is that for every child drowning and fatality, it is estimated that there are dozens of ‘close calls’ where water is ingested into the lungs (adults and children), which also go unreported or noticed.

The common misconception (blame Baywatch!) that the resuscitated person just coughs up water and then walks away is completely wrong. Anyone who has inspired water can, and usually does, suffer a range of problems, ranging from lung infections to serious and lifelong brain damage, depending on the length of oxygen deprivation, and always requires at least one overnight stay in hospital with constant supervision.

Recently, more and more parents and holidaymakers are conscious of the necessity for their children’s safety in all areas. This is especially the case when arriving at a rental villa with a pool. The parents are unpacking and probably having a celebratory drink, and the children, of course, just want to dive in! Throughout the holiday, toddlers and children want to splash in the pool.

A child or toddler can drown in 30 seconds, in complete silence.

Adult supervision is the best safeguard against this. But we are all human, the phone rings, the shopping arrives, a quick nap in the sun … many things can distract us for those crucial 30 seconds.

Rental villas are now being scrutinised by savvy family renters for child-safety aspects, principally the child-safe or fenced pool, and owners and reputable villa companies are becoming aware of this.

The UK’s largest villa operator James Villa Holidays, who have a large portfolio of villas here in the Algarve, has recently started a programme of “Baby & Toddler-Friendly Villas”, where the villas are being equipped for young families and have enclosed grounds, stair gates, bath tubs and a pack filled with baby and toddler toys and equipment.

These villas are designed to be as safe as possible for young families to be able to enjoy their holidays and relax. This initiative includes making the pools child-safe, with pool fencing and self-closing and locking gates to ensure that unsupervised toddlers and children, up to the age of five, would be unable to access the pool without adult assistance, using gold standard child-safe clips and locking systems from Australia. The fences are easily and quickly removed and stored when not required for adult parties or older children.

Children are curious and love water. Thus, extreme care should be taken to protect younger children, and this initiative is to be welcomed and encouraged.
Local Algarve câmaras have, in a few cases, started to recognise this, on new builds, but no common standards have been adopted and this can lead to error and misconceptions as to what is secure. A simple wall or standard gate is often not child safe – a planter can be clambered over.

A child-safe fence and gate have specific requirements, well-established worldwide, to operate effectively and, if not properly installed or built, a parent can be fooled into a false security, seeing a physical barrier, and relax their attention when, in fact, a child can find an access route and get into serious trouble.

In the EU (France only!), it is legally required to ‘secure’ the pool. This can include barrier systems such as infra-red beams and water disturbance detectors. These systems have often proven to be inefficient and sometimes dangerous, due to repeated false alarms, battery and electrical failures, misalignment and, worst of all, the assumption that the pool is secured and supervision is not needed.

Adult supervision is always the best safeguard, with or without other systems in place. A properly installed and designed fence is the best secondary device for toddlers and children up to five years old. It is a general assumption that, after that age, the child will be able to be aware of the potential danger. But accidents can happen, and any time children of any age are in a swimming pool, an adult should be present to supervise them.

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