Summer swimmers beware of electric shock drowning

Summer is fast approaching. The days are getting warmer, and with the spike in temperature comes a spike in the need to cool off quick. Jumping into the water is a refreshing and fast reprieve from the heat of summer, but it can also be a dangerous one.

Swimming in a marina can not only be hazardous, it can also be deadly. Swimmers can be hard to see from boats that are moving in and out of their slips. But even if there are no boats close by or no evident traffic, there is still another possible danger to swimmers. Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) is a real threat in any freshwater marina but may also be a potential threat in brackish saltwater.

While most of the threat of ESD is found in freshwater, which is more conductive than saltwater, Liberty Bay is brackish and has enough freshwater sources from streams and runoff feeding it to pose a potential threat. The Electrical Shock Drowning Prevention Association reports that “Although Electric Shock Drowning can occur virtually in any location where electricity is provided near water, the majority of Electric Shock Drowning deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks.” They identify the typical victim of ESD as “a child swimming in or around a marina or dock where electricity is present.”

The Port of Poulsbo is one of the first marinas in the Puget Sound region to install new power pedestals with GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) breakers in response to the new National Electrical Code standard that was established in order to reduce the occurrences of ESD. The new pedestals are able to detect both current going into the boat and current coming out of the boat and shut off if they find a difference of even .030 milliamps.

The port also tests each incoming boat to permanent moorage for electrical leakage. Employees were recently retrained in testing methods and instituted random testing of boats. In addition to routine testing, the port tests the electrical supply on the docks in an effort to prevent ESD and damage to moored boats.

It doesn’t take a lot of current to cause ESD. According to the Electrical Shock Drowning Prevention Association, “In the vast majority of Electric Shock Drownings, the victim’s autopsy shows no signs of electrical injury and investigators often never learn that electricity was the cause of the drowning.”

The source of stray AC current is often difficult to identify. There are many potential sources: shore-side facilities, power supply on the docks — even new and well-kept boats can be leaking current into the water.

The best way to prevent death by ESD is to keep out of the water within 100 yards of any marina, freshwater or saltwater. Enjoy kayaking and paddle boarding, but do not be tempted to get into the water to cool off while in a marina.

If you do find yourself in the water and you feel tingling or shocks, follow these suggestions from BoatUS:

• DO NOT follow your instinct to swim toward the dock.

• Shout! Drowning victims cannot speak, let alone shout. Let everyone know what’s happening so they’ll understand the danger and react appropriately.

• Try to stay upright. Back out of the area the way you came and head for shore 100 yards or more from the dock.

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

• Go to the hospital to make sure there are no lingering effects that could be dangerous.

If you need to rescue an ESD victim:

• Know how to distinguish drowning from ESD (tingling, numbness or pain all indicate ESD).

• Do not enter the water and risk endangering yourself.

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

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

• 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 help arrives.

Summer is fast approaching and with hotter days come myriad ways of cooling off and soaking up the sun. Just be sure you keep safety in mind when you enter the water and enjoy this beautiful season!

— Stephanie Sutherlin, S/V Willow, Poulsbo Boaters Association.

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