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New safeguards in place for swimming pools after drowning

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Swimming Pool in Fall River will re-open on Saturday with renovations including a shallower floor, new facilities, and a black and white disk which will help determine the clarity of the water.

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Swimming Pool in Fall River will re-open on Saturday with renovations including a shallower floor, new facilities, and a black and white disk which will help determine the clarity of the water.

The summer after a Fall River woman drowned in nearly opaque water, state officials have overhauled operations at swimming pools, closing slides, hiring more lifeguards, and filling in deep ends.

With a new swimming season set to begin Saturday, the state’s recreation department has made broad changes to improve safety at its two dozen deepwater pools, following recommendations from a scathing internal review that found “systemic deficiencies” in their management.

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Marie Joseph, 36, who could not swim, drowned last June after going down the slide and slipping under the water without notice. Her body lay unseen on the bottom of the Fall River pool’s 12-foot-deep end for two days, shrouded by the cloudy water.

Four state employees, including a regional director and district manager, lost their jobs after ­investigators found that water quality flagrantly violated safety guidelines. Two men were sentenced to probation after ­being charged with reckless ­endangerment.

Joseph’s death, and the agency’s admission that it might have been prevented, has spurred a range of reforms, from creating a new aquatics division with a team of new ­administrators to requiring lifeguards to make regular hand-checks of the pool floor.

“Sometimes tragedy forces the hand of change,” said S.J. Port, a spokeswoman for the state agency.

The report found that the agency had taken a decentralized approach to running its pools, creating a culture of lax oversight and poor management.

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In response, the state has ­also extended training for pool managers and hired more lifeguards, offsetting budget-­driven staff reductions in recent years. Lifeguards are now trained at the pool where they will work, rather than a central location.

“We want to make sure staff are well acquainted with the ­facility and aware of what we expect,” Port said.

In response to findings that the agency’s approach to maintenance was “inconsistent and confusing,” officials have created a statewide team to standardize upkeep and repairs. The agency had cut back on maintenance staff over the past two decades because of budget constraints, the report found.

During the off-season, the agency spent more than $1 million to renovate the Fall River pool as well as pools in Boston and Cambridge. In each case, the deep ends were filled in to under 6 feet, part of a long-term process to make the pools less expensive and safer.

At the same time, the agency has decided to close water slides this summer while it awaits guidance from federal health officials on safety standards. While surely disappointing news to young swimmers, the change is part of a long-term shift to shallower, simpler pools.

“These are urban cooling centers in a lot of ways,” Port said, noting that diving boards were removed from state-run pools more than a decade ago.

In Fall River, people who live near the pool where Joseph drowned said they were happy it had been renovated and would be open soon, and that they supported changes aimed at improving safety.

“Anything that’s good for the kids,” said Linda Tamele, grandmother to six. “They don’t need a deep end or slide. As long as they can splish and splash.”

The state plans to renovate additional pools each winter as the budget allows.

Under new guidelines, staff are now required to use a black-and-white disc to measure water clarity, as well as check the bottom of the pool floor by hand.

“They have to go to the bottom,” Port said.

Staff must be able to see the disc from the deck before opening the pool.

Beyond the state-run pools, local health boards are responsible for inspecting public pools, as well as pools in hotels, apartment complexes, clubs, and other establishments. They adhere to state health standards, which are unchanged since the drowning.

In Boston this week, workers were preparing the two city-run pools: Mirabella Pool in the North End and Clougherty Pool in Charlestown. Jeff Mackey, aquatics manager for the city’s Centers for Youth & Families, said the city sandblasts and paints the pools each winter, then over three days fills them with city water.

The water is then treated with chemicals to meet a number of yardsticks.

“It’s kind of like a science ­experiment, because every chemical interacts with all the other chemicals,” Mackey said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

Once the pools open, the ­water is tested throughout the day, he said. But Mackey urged all swimmers to look before they jump in.

“If it doesn’t look clear, they shouldn't swim in it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

In Fall River, residents said that while Joseph’s drowning was tragic, people would not hesitate to return to the popular pool.

“The kids, they don’t care,” said Maria Freitas, who lives across the street from the pool. “They don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Freitas said she liked that the pool had been made shallower. A hesitant swimmer, she keeps her feet on the ground. Better yet, on the shore.

“I like the beach,” she said. “Just getting my feet wet and listening to the waves.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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