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Raising Awareness About Electric Shock Drowning: Don't Fall Victim

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This past Sunday, I drove down the country roads that lead to our small cabin on the lake surrounded by a few neighbors. I grabbed a float and some drinks from the Dollar General and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the dock. I enjoyed the quietness of it all—no neighbors in sight, a dead iPhone, and the occasional splash of a fish jumping out of the water. As I was getting up to grab a book from the house, I knocked my sunscreen into the water and watched it float from the dock. Having just spent an arm and a leg on that sunscreen ($9.88 is in arm and a leg when you are three years out of college), it didn’t take more than two seconds for me to do my best impression of Will Ferrell's infamous Anchorman cannonball off the dock and retrieve the sunscreen. Pointless story? Yes, maybe. But little did I know, I could have been a victim with no help in sight.

Often, we don’t think twice about jumping into fresh water from a dock. We don’t realize that lethal amounts of electricity could be finding their way into the water from faulty wiring on the dock, boathouse, or boat if the dock has 120-volt AC power. Last summer, four children and one young adult were killed in separate electric shock drowning (ESD) incidents at docks on freshwater lakes in the span of one week. Just last week, a teen drowned at Smith Lake, Alabama after being electrocuted swimming near a boat dock. According to a random sampling of shore power cords in several fresh water marinas in the U.S. indicated that approximately 13% of the boats tested were leaking potentially lethal amounts of electrical (AC) current into the water.

Awareness is the first step to preventing such a tragedy from occurring. Here are some tips for preventing electric shock drowning:

  1. Never swim in or near unfamiliar marinas, docks, or boatyards. Do not leave children unattended.
  2. Tell others about the dangers of ESD.
  3. All electrical installations around waterways should be inspected at least once per year.
  4. Make sure all metal parts of the dock are connected to a ground rod on the shore. This will ensure any part of the dock that become energized because of an electrical malfunction will trip the circuit breaker.
  5. Test your boat to see if it is leaking electrical current using an AC clamp meter, which clamps onto a shore power cord and measures electricity going into the boat’s electrical system and returning from the system. If the two numbers are not exactly the same, electricity is in the water. You can also have your boat inspected by an electrician with current ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) Electrical Certification or by an ABYC Certified Technician.
  6. Marinas should install GFCIs on all shore power pedestals and on all marina wiring circuits. Marinas should also be regularly inspected by qualified electricians who are familiar with National Fire Protection Association Codes: NFPA 303 and NFPA 70.
  7. Post signs to warn people of the dangers associated with swimming around any equipment powered by AC electricity.

Summer is the perfect time to sit back, relax, and inspect electrical installations. Make this summer a fun one and make sure you are taking the necessary precautions! If you are in the water and feel an electric current, shout to others and let them know. Tuck your legs in to make yourself smaller and try to get away from anything that could be energized. Do not use a boat or dock ladder to get out. If you see a swimmer who feels an electric current, do not jump in. Instead, throw the swimmer a float. Eliminate or turn off the source of electricity as quickly as possible and summon help. 

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