Editor's Note: Parks & Rec Business magazine presents the second part in a year-long series of articles that will focus on... Everything H20, from pool equipment, safety, staffing and programming to profiles and perspectives on the latest aquatics facilities, water parks and splash parks in public parks and recreation.
Willie Basil has a long history with Jones Recreation Center, the only public swimming pool in Demopolis, Ala., and now he's a part-time full-timer at the center.
For Basil, managing the center is primarily a labor of love, as his full-time job is as a shift worker at the local paper mill. Basil is the facility and pool manager at Jones Recreation Center, reporting to the city's parks and recreation department.
Basil has been managing the pool on and off -- mostly on -- for about 15 years. When he first came on board around 1989 he had very little experience with the ins and outs of running a pool.
What Basil had, however, was a dedication to diligence and a background in emergency management as a former fire fighter and EMT for Demopolis. Those skills and dedication have helped make the pool one of the more popular summer destinations for Demopolis residents and the surrounding counties. Basil says recent attendance is "off the charts."
The original impetus for giving the pool more attention had less to do with driving attendance, and more to do with safety.
"We're almost surrounded by rivers, and as a firefighter I had been to several drownings," says Basil. "I was talking to the chief of the fire department the other day, and he said it's been a long time since we've had a drowning. When I was there we had two to four per year. That's one of the main reasons I went into it, and one of the main reasons I've stayed."
Safety is still the pool's first priority. Increased attendance and improvements to the pool and facility have come along as a matter of course. Run a safe, clean facility with strong programming and popularity is a natural byproduct, says Basil.
The pool facility includes an entrance foyer and showers that lead to the new pool deck, a covered shed and concession stand and new landscaping. The main building is used for other programming, like arts and crafts and special-event rentals, during and after the swimming season (which runs about three months in the summer, six days a week).
Though the pool does not have a diving board because of liability and the pool's depth (8 1/2 feet at its deepest), Basil recently added commercial pool basketball hoops.
"Mostly what our pool is for is to teach kids to swim, and give families a nice, clean place to socialize," says Basil. "At one time we were mostly targeting the kids, but usually if you draw the parents, you keep the kids. That's one of the reasons for the remodeling we're doing now, like the new deck and a shed over the deck. Most adults like a shady place to be, so this other part is trying to draw the parents, and it has really worked."
Solid programming has also contributed to the pool's popularity. Jones Recreation Center offers child and adult swim classes and Basil likes to mix and match wet and dry activities -- like incorporating the playground across the street -- to keep things fresh and moving. Basil says he's after a healthy balance of structure and play time.
"Everyone learns to swim differently. Certain kids are going to be more aggressive and some are going to be passive about learning. Everyone has to take their own way. If the child is not comfortable in the water, the child will never learn to swim. Our biggest thing is making sure the kids are comfortable in the water and feel safe with us," explains Basil.
"Even during our structured swim lessons there's a structured play time, which gives the kids the freedom to play in the water among their peers. The lifeguards also need to get in the water, play with the kids, let them get accustomed to them and to trust them. Then things move pretty quickly. Once we get the kids to trust us from station to station and skill to skill it's not a problem."
The foundation of successful programming, says Basil, is certified and qualified lifeguards. The ideal, he says, is to pull from the same pool of kids who went through your program years ago. "They already know your way; there are no bad habits you have to change," says Basil.
"I've had times where people who -- once they got their card -- said, 'I'm a lifeguard.' No… You have a lifeguard card. You're not a lifeguard. A lifeguard has an eye to see things unfolding before they happen, and once you get to that point, I know you're a lifeguard. Preventative is the best way, and your training is going to be key," says Basil.
"I require a certain amount of water time each week, and if they don't have it, they don't work until it's completed. When they come back in after they've been gone, the first thing they do is get their water time in, and I don't deviate from that. Their physical training is one of the keys to make sure their job is done the right way. We don't begin anything we can't finish."
Additionally, Basil requires weekly in-service training sessions and adds responsibilities as each employee's progress merits it. Lifeguards are constantly tested and questioned, whether it's a written, verbal or physical test.
"If someone comes over and jeopardizes the standard of the facility -- I don't care if it's the boss -- you cannot tolerate it. Especially with a small town; one incident, and you're closed," says Basil. "If you don't have the skills and training to do it, you don't do it, regardless of your title."
From a daily lifeguard management standpoint, Basil keeps them moving and rotating or on break every 15-20 minutes. Basil also alters the rotation so that it doesn't become routine, helping to keep the lifeguards fresh.
An accountability and communication program is another thread that runs through the lifeguard program. Basil emphasizes that it's not a tattle-tale program as much as it is a truth-telling one.
"If it's the truth, speak it, even if it's about me. There's no way we can get better if we can't speak the truth. If someone's on the deck not doing what they're supposed to be doing, call it out. Have a line of communication between the manager, assistant manager, head lifeguards and lifeguards all the time," says Basil.
As part of that communication, minute documentation is employed at the Jones Recreation Center, whether it's equipment, programming or personnel.
"I'm a stickler for keeping every little tidbit of information. The biggest thing is organizing it and being able to utilize it. Any information we have, we make sure to write it up. Don't wait until after it happens. If your personnel are doing a certain thing a certain way and it's working, have them jot it down and make a note of it. Get your information now," says Basil.
"Our biggest thing now is the way people think about lawsuits, and the liability end of it. That's our biggest thought every day -- making sure things are done consistently and documented, especially since we're dealing with the public and an aquatic facility. I see people get themselves in trouble by having something like an aquatics facility, but not doing what they're supposed to be doing. In a small town people often look for an easy way out, but especially in a small town you can't take those kinds of chances. You have one little incident and the whole program's dead."
Basil takes a before, during and after approach where everything and everyone is inspected and checked before, during and after pool time, both daily and seasonally. "You always have a certain amount of hazards in any operation, so you need to make sure those hazards are minimized before, during and after," says Basil.
Basil's risk management philosophies are somewhat intuitive, given that he had emergency management experience prior to running Jones Recreation Center. Though lacking general pool care background, Basil has experience running a water plant, which comes in handy.
"I've taken river water and made it look like this pool. Number one, it takes water balance. I'll adjust pH first, then alkalinity. Those two things have to be done first," says Basil.
"If you have an acidic pool you're going to leach the alkalinity right out of the pool, which will cause pitting, and regardless if the pH is too high or too low you will have eye irritation and problems with the filtration system. But, when you get those two things right and the chlorine taken care of the biology in the water and the pool will maintain itself with minor adjustments. We don't wait for chlorination to say it's time to super-chlorinate or shock the pool. When combined chlorine is so much higher than your free chlorine, I don't wait on that margin of error to tell me. We check our residuals about six or eight times a day, because you're going to have leaching of your chemicals all during the day just due to sunlight.
"Once a week we close on Friday afternoon, we shock the pool, and then Saturday I come in and do the tests -- pH, alkalinity, chlorine residuals, cyanuric acid level, calcium hardness, temperature and a few others to make sure everything's balanced. I'll try to do a major test three or four times a week."
Beyond chemicals, Basil says the secret to his sparkling, clean pool is a regular run for the pool's AquaMax robotic pool cleaner.
"Algaecide is one of the most expensive chemicals you can purchase. The key to getting rid of algae and keeping it away, is not so much killing the algae but getting rid of the remnants after it's dead, because algae builds on algae. It has to have something to build on. Vacuuming is going to be the key to make sure algae is not going to come back," says Basil.
"Once you shock you will kill the biology that is there, but you'll still have the remnants, and you have to get rid of the particulates. It doesn't matter what it is -- a quarter, dime or earring or anything as small as 2 microns -- if you drop our automatic pool cleaner in, it will get it out."
Basil says automating this process has saved substantially in pool-cleaning man hours and in chemicals, cutting chemical consumption down by half.
Basil has also created a rotation schedule on equipment and chemicals in order to maximize a limited budget. The rotation sets costs and acts as preventative maintenance. Items are inspected and placed in the rotation based on need.
"I've been getting the same amount of money for 15 years, and every year equipment has to be changed out, but you don't buy it every year. Most of my rotating schedules last about three years. Within those three years I'll do certain things each year, so you're stretching your money longer," says Basil.
Over the years, Basil -- working in conjunction with parks and recreation -- has been steadily bringing the pool relatively on a quality par with the city's Sportsplex, which houses a golf course, ball fields and soccer fields.
The city is also building a higher learning center at the Sportsplex, and an activity center across from Jones Recreation Center, which will have basketball courts and a running track thanks to a generous donation by Atlanta Hawks' basketball star Theo Ratliff.
An indoor pool is on Basil's wish list as he says it would greatly benefit the elderly.
"People in Demopolis need a place where they can rehabilitate or continue physical fitness, and water's the best place to do it," he says.