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Park Board moves to ban floatation devices at Mitchell Indoor Aquatic Center

The decision to ban the use of floatation devices stemmed from safety concerns and liability issues, as pool officials say floatation devices create a false sense of security among toddler-aged pool-goers and their guardians.

Lifeguard Claire Lepke watches over the swimmers practicing with their kickboards in the lap pool at the Mitchell Indoor Aquatic Center on Thursday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Lifeguard Claire Lepke watches over the swimmers practicing with their kickboards in the lap pool at the Mitchell Indoor Aquatic Center on Thursday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Floatation devices are no longer allowed for pool-goers to use at the Indoor Aquatic Center.

At the request of the city’s pool officials, the Parks and Recreation Board recently voted 4-1 to ban the use of floatation devices, including life jackets, puddle jumpers and other swimming aids during the April board meeting. The recommendation to ban the floatation devices primarily centered around safety concerns and insurance liability issues.

“Our insurance does not recommend them, and our Human Resources director does not recommend it either,” said Rec Center Director Kevin DeVries, who requested the Parks and Recreation Board ban floatation devices during the April meeting. “We completely understand why some people want to use puddle jumpers, but from a liability standpoint, it just takes one bad incident to put us in a very bad spot.”

DeVries said he’s noticed some floatation devices, especially the puddle jumpers -- which are life jacket swimming aids primarily used by infants and toddlers -- create a “false sense of security” for parents and guardians watching children while using the pool.

“At the pool, anyone aged 5 or under has to be within an arm's reach of their child, and when you put those devices on them, they kind of think those rules go away,” DeVries said. “We had a parent recently leave their child who was about 2 years old swimming in the pool with the puddle jumper on while they went to the bathroom. Those are the kind of issues we are talking about that could become very serious problems.”

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With the decision to ban floatation devices, Mitchell joins a handful of similar-sized South Dakota cities that have implemented similar restrictions, DeVries noted. According to DeVries, Watertown, Brookings and Sioux Falls do not allow floatation devices due to what he said is “liability” and “safety concerns.”

Aquatics Coordinator Jamie Henkel pointed to the challenges of enforcing the “arm’s length” rule that parents are asked to comply with while their child (5 year old or younger) is swimming with a floatation device as another reason she supports the ban. Henkel said the ban would alleviate the lifeguards challenges of enforcing the rule for children 5 or under who use a floatation device, along with making for a safer environment.

“We have some people who yell at the lifeguards and disrespect them for trying to enforce the rules,” Henkel said. “I’ve had many staff meetings where I have to reprimand the lifeguards for not following the pool policy either.”

For Board member Amanda Johnson, who made the lone vote to deny banning floatation devices, the move would deter people from using the pool, including herself.

“I didn’t renew my membership because life jackets and puddle jumpers are no longer allowed,” Johnson said during the April board meeting. “I want to take my child to the pool, but I want them to be able to have a floatation device, as well.”

Johnson said the ban would likely affect revenue for the city pool. The decision to ban floatation devices had a significant impact on her family, as she noted it’s the reason she opted to not renew her membership.

“I believe allowing the flotation devices and puddle jumpers would increase revenue as well,” Johnson said.

As a former lifeguard, board member Chris Retterath can relate to the challenges that the use of floatation devices cause. By banning floatation devices, Retterath said it would help parents and guardians watch their children more closely.

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“Back when I was a lifeguard, kids would jump in the pool with them on without being supervised, which would lead to trouble. I just feel like parents are going to watch them closer, if their kids are not in those devices,” Retterath said.

He also noted that some kids’ floatation devices can potentially bring contaminants into the pool water.

“The last thing we want is the algae from Lake Mitchell coming into the pool,” Henkel said.

Rather than outright banning floatation devices at the city’s indoor pool, Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell suggested the city provide their own floatation devices such as life jackets and puddle jumpers for pool-goers who want to use them.

However, DeVries said his discussion with the city’s Human Resources revealed that providing life jackets would make the city “extremely” more liable for any potential accidents or issues that may occur at the pool.

Powell wasn’t on board with the ban, largely due to the challenges it could create for parents or guardians who are older or disabled and can’t be in the water with a toddler to stay at least an arm’s length away.

With regards to the insurance liability concerns, Powell said the city’s insurance provider does allow the use of floatation devices and puddle jumpers.

“The trend is going toward life jacket vests. You have to think about people who have disabilities and grandparents who maybe can’t get into the water with the kids they are with and watching. They may not be able to come then,” Powell said. “And we do get questions asking if we allow floatation devices.”

Related Topics: RECREATIONMEMBERS-ONLY
Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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