Prevent Electric Shock Drowning

July 23, 2013 

In 2004 on Lake Wylie, Dean Stroud, 13, died from electric shock while swimming near the family houseboat at Long Cove Marina & Yacht Club. His family had moved the boat from Lake Norman to Lake Wylie earlier that day and his father was connecting the boat to the dock when Stroud was electrocuted. The teen was climbing the ladder of the boat at the same time his father was hooking up electricity.

Last year during the Fourth of July weekend, Alexandra Anderson, 13, and her brother, Brayden Anderson, 8, were swimming near a homeowner’s dock on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri when they started to scream. By the time the siblings were pulled from the lake, they were unresponsive. A short while later, they were pronounced dead.

Two hours later on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee, Noah Winstead, 10, died in a similar manner. Noah’s friend, Nate Parker Lynam, 11, died the following day. These were not drowning victims.

A 120-volt AC (alternating current) leakage from nearby boats or docks can electrocute or incapacitate swimmers in fresh water. This little-known and often-unidentified killer is called Electric Shock Drowning or ESD.

“Every one of these deaths was preventable,” said Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS) Director of Technical Services Beth Leonard. “Any boater and every adult who swims in a freshwater lake needs to understand how ESD happens, how to stop it from happening, and what to do — and not to do — if they ever have to help a victim.”

BoatUS offers BoatUS.com/seaworthy/ESD.asp online for helpful tips.

Here’s what boat owners, private dock owners and swimmers do to prevent ESD:

In general:

• Tell others about ESD. Most people have never heard of it and are unaware of the danger.

• To retrieve a person in the water, reach, throw and row – but don’t go.

• Make sure children understand the importance of not swimming anywhere there could be electricity. Don’t let them roughhouse on docks. Tell them what to do if they feel a tingling or shock in the water.

• ESD victims are good candidates for successful CPR. Learn to perform CPR and maintain training.

At marinas:

• Never swim within 100 yards of a freshwater marina or boatyard.

• Talk to marina owners or operators about the danger of ESD. Ask the marina operator to prohibit swimming at their facility and post signs.

• Ask marina operators if they are aware of and follow the guidelines in National Fire Protection Association 303 (fire protection standard for marinas and boatyards) and National Electric Code 555.

For boat owners:

• Have your boat tested once a year to see if it is leaking electricity, or buy a clamp meter and test it yourself. If you find any problems, have your boat inspected by a qualified electrician trained to American Boat and Yacht Council standards.

• Have a qualified ABYC electrician install an Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter on your boat (refer them to the ABYC E-11 Standard) or use a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter in the shore power cord. As an alternative, install an isolation transformer on the boat.

• Test the GFCI/ELCI at least once a month or per the manufacturer’s specifications.

• Do not do your own 120-volt AC electrical work on a boat or hire an electrician who is not familiar with ABYC standards to do it. Many of the problems that lead to an electrical fault on the boat result from the differences between shore and boat electrical systems and standards.

• Do not use common household extension cords for providing shore power to your boat. Use, and encourage other boaters to use, shore power cords built to UL standards, ideally with a GFCI built in.

• Never dive on your boat to work on underwater fittings when it is plugged in to shore power, even in saltwater.

At private docks:

• Never swim within 100 yards of any dock using electrical power.

• If you have not electrified your dock or put an AC system on your boat, weigh the risks carefully before doing so.

• If you need electricity on your dock, hire a licensed electrician and make sure the wiring meets the requirements in NFPA 303 and NEC 555. If your dock is already wired, hire an electrician to check that it was done properly. Because docks are exposed to the elements, their electrical systems should be inspected at least once a year.

• Exercise your GFCIs/ELCIs as recommended by the manufacturer.

• If you normally run a power cord from your house or garage to charge your batteries, make sure the outlet has a GFCI and include a GFCI somewhere in the shore power cord.

• Never swim off your dock without shutting down all shore power to the boat and the dock.

What to do:

If you’re in the water and feel tingling or shocks:

• Do not follow your instinct to swim toward the dock.

• Shout! When electricity is not involved, drowning victims cannot speak, let alone shout. Tell those around you exactly what you’re feeling so they can help you while keeping themselves safe.

• Try to stay upright and back out of the area the way you came, warn any other swimmers in the area of the danger, then head for shore 100 yards or more from the dock.

• Alert the dock or marina owner and tell them to shut the power off to the dock until they locate the problem and correct it.

If you have to rescue an ESD victim:

• Know how to distinguish drowning from ESD (drowning victims cannot speak and look as if they are trying to climb a ladder; screaming, shouting and tingling, numbness, or pain indicate ESD).

• Fight the instinct to enter the water — many rescuers have died trying to help ESD victims.

• Call for help. Use 911 or VHF Channel 16 as appropriate.

• Turn off the shore power connection at the meter base and/or unplug shore power cords.

• Get the victim out of the water. Remember to reach, throw, row – but don’t go.

• If the person is not breathing or you cannot get a pulse, perform CPR until the Fire Department, Coast Guard, or ambulance arrives.

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