Drownings rank as one of the leading causes of accidental death in the United States, especially for young people. Locally, health officials made some unexpected changes following a drowning incident that left a 6-year-old boy with permanent brain damage.
The Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) now says that what the Cowabunga Bay water park actually needs is fewer lifeguards.
I-Team Chief Investigator George Knapp asked SNHD Chief Environmental Health Officer Jackie Reszetar about the health district’s stance on Cowabunga Bay.
“You said (Cowabunga Bay) did not live up to health and safety codes, but they changed it. You changed it,” Knapp said.
“Nobody changed that,” Reszetar replied.
“So, there was no variance given to Cowabunga Bay?” Knapp asked.
“There was a variance given to Cowabunga Bay,” Reszetar answered.
“That's what I just asked,” Knapp said.
Since the Southern Nevada Health District hired her two years ago, Reszetar has implemented an "industry friendly" approach to public health. Her oversight of Cowabunga Bay might be an example of what that means.
In 2014, the health district said state law required at least 17 lifeguards on duty at all times at the water park’s sprawling wave pool. The park agreed, but, according to its general manager, never complied with that law. Instead, it posted five or fewer lifeguards at the wave pool.
On the day 6-year-old Leland Gardner visited, only three were working. Gardner suffered catastrophic brain damage before he was pulled from the water. The park characterized his rescue as a success.
Reszetar heard about the incident on television and sent her team to the park. It was the first inspection since Cowabunga Bay opened ten months earlier and the first time anyone checked the number of lifeguards.
A second visit two weeks later found the park with fewer than half the number of required lifeguards on duty. A citation was issued, but in the interests of being industry friendly, that was reduced to a mere fee of $118.
Instead of increasing its oversight, the health district agreed to change the rules. Reszetar's staff approved a variance that reduced the number of lifeguards at the wave pool by two thirds. The park alleged that fewer lifeguards would improve public safety. Reszetar agreed.
“We are going by the evidence-based guidance from the MAHC (Model Aquatic Health Code),” she said about the decision.
The MAHC is a report by the Centers for Disease Control. It's not a law; it's a guideline for water safety across the country. The water park industry has vigorously opposed federal standards, so the CDC wrote the report to guide local agencies.
The report suggests water parks could assign lifeguards based on zones of coverage rather than merely square footage. It sets the floor, not the ceiling.
Cowabunga Bay hired water park consultants who put their spin on it. They told the health district the report proves too many lifeguards could cause them to talk to each other. So, instead of 17 at the wave pool, it would be safer to have six or seven.
Three months ago, Reszetar pitched the idea to the health board, and the variance was approved. The board was never told that Cowabunga Bay had been caught twice in violation of the lifeguard law. Something else was omitted at the meeting.
“Was Leland Gardner's incident mentioned?” Knapp asked Reszetar.
“To my knowledge, I don't recall, just because I don't recall,” she said.
“Wouldn't that seem pertinent?” Knapp asked.
“Again, we're going by science to make public health decisions,” she answered.
The health district never contacted the CDC to ask about the science, not even in an e-mail.
Instead, the health district took the word of the water park consultants. The CDC report, in fact, makes no mention at all about lifeguard numbers. It certainly does not say that too many lifeguards cause complacency or distractions.
In a statement to the I-Team, the CDC said the MAHC report "does not address the number of lifeguards needed in a particular facility." Someone put that spin on it, and the Southern Nevada Health District bought it.
“We think it is nonsensical. You need more eyes on that wave pool when the waves are going,” said Gardner family attorney Samuel Mirkovich. “It is incredibly difficult to see children in the wave pool when the waves are going.”
The Board of Health meets later this week.
Because of pending litigation, Cowabunga Bay declined to comment on this story. The water park released a statement earlier this month about lifeguard staffing.
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