Public swimming pools operated by the D.C. Department of Recreation have been beset this summer by staff and supply shortages, safety and maintenance problems and near chaotic operating conditions, according to numerous pool managers and swimming program employees.
The situation has deteriorated so much this summer - with employee morale described as being at an all-time low - that several pool managers recently met with two aides to D.C. C* ity Council Chairman Sterling Tucker to outline the department's shortcomings.
"According to what we've been told, there's hardly a part of that department that doesn't have problems," Alan Grip, special assistant to Tucker, said yesterday.
Grip confirmed that he and Tucker's executive assistant, Rodney Coleman, met last Friday with some of the city's pool managers after receiving a report from one former employee that "some awful things" were happening in the department.
Grip would not discuss details of the meeting except to acknowledge that he and Coleman have decided "there's something there in these problems that requires the chairman's attention and I'm preparing a report for him now."
Pool managers and employees at recreation centers around the city - a few of whom declined to be quoted by name - agreed to discuss various problems in the aquatics division.
They said the management mishaps are having a detrimental effect on the estimated 1.3 million youths and adults who use the city's 43 indoor and outdoor pools each year. Staffing and maintenance problems have resulted in fewer Learn to Swim and competitive swimming programs and erratic pool openings and unexpected closings.
"Running a pool should entail more than just opening it up and letting people swim," said one pool manager. "People have a right to expect a variety of swimming programs that will be run by the staff."
Aquatics division employees listed numerous difficulties they have encountered since late May when the city's pools were preparing to open for summer. The problems they cited ranged from failure to obtain supplies and sufficient personnel until well into the swimming season, to the frequent inability to reach department supervisors, obtain legitimately earned overtime or get necessary pool repairs work performed.
"It's taken almost an eternity to get maintenance work done," said Rodney Lee, pool manager at Benning park in Southeast. "I had two holes in the fence which I couldn't get fixed, and the kids kept climbing through them."
This problem is exacerbated by staff shortages, especially a lack of night watchmen on weekends, Lee said.
"One Sunday night I found 10 or 15 kids had gotten into the pool and were swimming around unsupervised. I chased them out," he recalled.
"There's a breakdown somewhere between the department administration and personnel, and it sure slows down the hiring process for summer employment," said Hank Saunders, pool manager at McKinley pool in Northeast Washington. "Many pools were understaffed at the beginning of the summer, and I'm sure some are still understaffed."
Saunders, a pool manager for about eight years, said he has had no real problems this year with his own pool but knows that budget shortages have affected the availability of swimming and maintenance personnel.
He and other pool employees expressed sympathy and support for officials in the aquatics division, particularly its director, James Tompkins, but said it is becoming very difficult to cope with bureaucratic snafus they have been experiencing.
"One of the worst situation has been caused because they moved the whole aquatics office at the end of June right in the middle of all the activity," complained Dennis Adams, pool manager for the indoor-outdoor pool complex at the Capitol East Natatorium.
"There's been almost no communication between this new main office and the different pools in the city," said Adams, who added that there is only one phone in the office and that frequently no one is there to anwer it.
Adams, who has worked with the Recreation Department for about eight years, also complained that the inability to get maintenance workers has resulted in erratic pool schedules with four or five pools having to shut down for a time because of repair problems.
"My pool water was green, and I had to threaten to shut it down before I could get some repair workers to come out," Adams said.
Pool safety and pool swimming programs have been another concern of the managers, according to Adams and others, and yesterday the condition of 11-year-old Curtiss Knight was uppermost in their minds.
Knight was listed in critical condition yesterday at Children's Hospital after nearly drowning Tuesday afternoon in five feet of water at the Banneker Recreation Center pool, 2500 Georgia Ave. NW. He was pulled from the pool by a lifeguard after another swimmer noticed his body was going limp in water over his head.
A hospital source yesterday said ambulance workers credited life guards at the pool with saving Knight's life with prompt, effective cardio-pulmonary and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"I've had an upset stomach all morning," said one department employee about the bear drowning. "I thought we had to beat the summer (without any fatality). Something like this just shouldn't happen."
The employee, who declined to be quoted by name, estimated that the Knight youth would have to have been in the water for probably 4 minutes for him to have stopped breathing and his body to go limp. "That's a long time for somebody to be under and not be noticed."
While stressing that there was probably no connection between the mishap and employee complaints about poor pool management "it all leads up together proper training and proper supervision, management and communication," he said.
Last summer, after another youth drowned in a city pool, a manager at another pool, Ray Hammill, critized pool operations and said health and safety conditions were inadequate. Hammill was fired shortly afterwards, although recreation department officials maintained then that his comments had nothing to do with his dismissal.
Hammill, who is appealing his firing in the courts, subsequently has waged a campaign with city officials to get them to pay more attention to pool conditions and he has warned that another "accident is waiting to happen."
The Hammill case has made other Recreation Department employees reluctant to discuss problems there, but yesterday some willingly agreed to share their grievances.
"On Taylor Street (where the aquatics division has moved) they've got things all over the office, every which way," said Eric Hudson, assistant pool manager at Kenilworth-Parkside have Northeast. "They shouldn't have moved in the summer because even they don't know where their things are now." He said this has made it difficult to get equipment out to the city pools as needed.
Aquatics director Tompkins conceded yesterday that his division has been plagued with several problems this summer and he blamed many of them on budgets shortages that have affected staff sizes.
Tompkins said yesterday that he does not have exact budget figures available but estimated his division's spending at "about $1 million plus."
He said the maintenance workers have to make repairs at the city's recreation centers as well as the pools, and he noted that with just four plumbers working for the whole city "they get sent wherever there's the worst emergency."
The city also has just two chlorinator specialists, Tompkins said, but they are also the only two air-conditioner repair workers so they are busy, too.
Tompkins acknowledged complaints about communication problems and said he has not had his own phone since the aquatics division relocated nearly two months ago. He said he uses telephone lines belonging to another department division and frequently stops by the main department headquarters to use its phone when they are not busy.
"We wanted to try to move before summer, but the administration offices didn't seem to be able to get the contracts," Tompkins said.
"It's been a pretty tough summer, and sometimes people get unhappy," said Tompkins, aquatics director since 1964. "The major thrust is to have the people swim and I think we've two weeks in July when I had only four lifeguards and I was supposed to have eight."
He and others said they routinely work more than 40 hours a week to make up for staff shortages but have been told by supervisors that they may not put in for overtime or compensatory time for these extra hours. This, they say. also has affected morale in the aquatics division.
"This is the worst I've seen it," said a pool manager who has been with the division for seven years and had planned to make a career of recreation work. "I was all gung-ho once, but I has just gotten to be too shoddy."