Missouri families have long understood that electricity and water don’t mix, but most families don’t realize that electricity from a fresh water dock, a swimming pool light, or even a boat, can lead to Electric Shock Drowning.
Electric Shock Drowning, or Dock Shock, causes a swimmer’s muscles to become paralyzed, making it impossible for them to swim. The result is often fatal. And because bystanders don’t usually realize right away that the water is electrified, well-intended rescuers can also be killed.
Here are five real-life situations that have caused Electric Shock Drowning in the last several years in fresh water pools and lakes around the United States. Your Missouri Electric Cooperatives hope that by sharing these specific examples of how dock shock has happened, that your family can stay safer in the water.
1. When a Boat Leaks Current
Even a small amount of power leakage from a freshwater boat can lead to dangerous swimming conditions. That’s because the energy that leaks from the boat through underwater metals (like the boat’s propeller) will move through the water in an attempt to complete its circuit.
According to Seaworthy Magazine, seven swimmers were injured and four others died — including Alexandra Anderson, 13, and her brother Brayden Anderson, 8 — in a single weekend in two different, and tragic, incidents of electricity entering the water from a boat or a dock. Alexandra and Brayden died swimming at Lake of the Ozarks, and the other injuries and fatalities occurred at Cherokee Lake near Knoxville, Tennessee in July 2012.
2. Touching a Dock that has Faulty Wiring
Another way that electrical current can enter fresh water is through faulty electrical wiring on a dock. In July 2012, Jennifer Lankford, 26, suffered Electric Shock Drowning at Lake of the Ozarks when she touched a dock that officials believe was electrified.
A properly installed Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI) can reduce the chances of electric shock near metal docks, but the only way to be entirely safe is to avoid swimming in fresh water near any dock that has electricity running through it.
3. When an Electrified Ladder is Lowered Into the Water
Metal ladders that are attached to boats or docks can carry electrical current from the boat or dock into the water. Kevin Ritz, founder of the Electric Shock Drowning Association, lost his eight-year-old son when the boy grabbed onto an electrified metal boat ladder in 1999.
15-year-old Carmen Johnson also died of Electric Shock Drowning when an electrified ladder was lowered into the Alabama lake where she was swimming with a friend. When her father lowered the ladder into the water, he didn’t know that electricity from a faulty light switch on their dock would pass through that metal ladder and into the water.
As Carmen sank, paralyzed, beneath the surface of the water, her dad jumped in to try to pull her up. Her dad was paralyzed, too, but not before he was able to shout to Carmen’s mom to cut the power to the dock. By then, Carmen’s brother had also entered the water to try to help. Thankfully, Carmen’s friend, dad, and brother survived. Tragically, Carmen did not.
4. When Jumping Into the Water to Save Someone Else
Almost any adult swimmer who sees another person drowning nearby will, as a first instinct, jump into the water to try to help. That’s exactly what Carmen Johnson’s dad and brother did, and sadly, it’s exactly what Donna Berger did, too.
Donna was an exceptional swimmer who taught survival swimming to children. When she realized that her 13-year-old son was struggling to swim in a Tennessee lake in early August 2016, she jumped in to help.
She was able to save her son, but the electric shock in the water paralyzed her before she could get out. Donna’s neighbor, Randy Freeney, jumped in to help. Both Donna and Randy were strong swimmers, but both died that day from Electric Shock Drowning.
The director of marina services for Morningstar Marinas on Lake Norman in North Carolina told a local news station that swimmers should think twice before jumping in to help a drowning victim near freshwater boats and docks.
“There’s a phrase that says, ‘Reach, throw or row, but don’t go,’” he says (source).
In California, another parent — this time a 43-year-old Silicon Valley executive named James Tramel — died of Electric Shock Drowning while trying to save his nine-year-old daughter from drowning in a freshwater swimming pool. A pool light was later identified as the likely source of deadly electrical charge.
5. When Changing a Pool Light
When pool lights are wired correctly and where working GFI’s are installed, pool lights are perfectly safe. When those lights are installed incorrectly or are malfunctioning — and especially if no GFI is installed — pool lights can be dangerous.
In June 2016, a Phoenix, Arizona father of three died of suspected Electric Shock Drowning while he was changing a light in his family’s pool from inside the pool water.
Deaths like these from Electric Shock Drowning are heartbreaking, but they’re also largely preventable. Your Missouri Electric Cooperatives recommend hiring a professional electrician to do all electrical work in and around your family’s swimming pool and freshwater dock. If you opt to do the electric work in or around your pool yourself, be absolutely sure that all power to the pool or pool deck is shut off before you begin working.
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