Members of two Smith Mountain Lake volunteer fire departments are conducting free voltage checks of docks with a special apparatus, a “Shock Alert,” to detect a potentially fatal electrical charge coursing through the water.

  With a voltage detector, Smith Mountain Lake Marine Fire and Rescue is checking the water around docks and other lake structures, doing 20 such checks in recent months. Stray voltage has been discovered in every instance but two, firefighter Neil Harrington told the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council at its meeting Wednesday.

  “Voltage was found around every dock, old and new, except two,” Harrington said. “No stray amount is normal.”

  The safety council gave Scruggs Fire, Rescue and Dive enough money to purchase a voltage detector so they, too, can conduct checks and potentially save the lives of residents, visitors and even first responders responding to emergencies around docks.

 Electric shock drowning is a real and present danger in many places, including Smith Mountain Lake, although to date, there are no records of such an incident occurring here.

  Several years ago, over the Independence Day weekend, two Missouri siblings died in what could have been a preventable tragedy.

  Alexandra Anderson, 13, and her brother, Brayden Anderson, 8, were swimming next to a private dock in the Lake of the Ozarks when they started to scream. Their parents raced to their aid, but by the time rescuers pulled the siblings from the lake, they were unresponsive. Both children were pronounced dead after being transported to a nearby hospital. Just two hours later, in Tennessee, a 10-year-old boy died in Cherokee Lake in a similar manner, and according to press reports, seven other swimmers were injured near where the boy died.

  These were not the victims of drowning, but of a phenomenon known as Electric Shock Drowning (ESD). In all of the cases, 120-volt alternating current leakage from nearby boats or docks electrocuted or incapacitated swimmers in fresh water. In just four months during the summer of 2012, seven cases of ESD were confirmed, as well as many near misses, and a lot of incidents were undetected.

  The heartbreaking phenomenon could happen at Smith Mountain Lake, or any body of fresh water, according to Tom Merriman, a member of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council. Merriman, a native of Ohio who has called the lake home since 1998, learned about ESD in stories published in BoatUS.com.

  “It caught my attention,” said Merriman. “A lot of those conditions are present at Smith Mountain Lake. Clearly, it’s our educational responsibility as a safety council to alert people to the possibility. We care about boating safety and other water-related safety issues, and I think we should raise awareness of ESD. I talked to a fellow recently who experienced a tingling sensation in the water,” possibly caused by electrical current. “It’s a big red flag.”

   Most of the hundreds of private and commercial docks on Smith Mountain Lake have electrical service, bringing current through conduits to power lights and boat lifts. Merriman said his own dock at Spinnaker Run also has a 220 line to run an irrigation pump for his yard.

  Today’s docks are sophisticated structures outfitted with electrical systems installed by licensed electricians, he noted, but some of the docks constructed in the earlier years of the impoundment could have age-related wear to their wiring, or animal damage.

  Why is fresh water more dangerous than saltwater when it comes to electrical current? According to BoatUS.com, saltwater is anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times more conductive than fresh water. The conductivity of the human body when wet lies between the two, but is much closer to saltwater than fresh. In saltwater, the human body merely slows down electricity, so most of it will go around a swimmer on its way back to ground unless the swimmer grabs something, such as a propeller or a ladder that is electrified. In fresh water, the current lodges in the body as it tries to return to its source and generates voltage gradients that will take a short cut through the swimmer. A voltage gradient of just two volts per  AC foot in fresh water can pack enough current to kill.

  An article in the October, 2012 edition of Seaworthy says to protect against ESD accidents, the American Boat and Yacht Council adopted standards in 2010 that require an Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI) be installed on new boats. However, not all boat manufacturers follow ABYC standards, which are voluntary, and there is not yet a requirement to retrofit  ELCIs on older boats. There also is no standard that requires the installation of Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters at marinas and on private docks (in Europe, these devices have been required at marinas for nearly 30 years and ESD is no longer a concern there). Until the time fresh water boats and docks are safe, the best defense is “never to swim near docks with energized 120-volt AC power. Signs should be posted warning children and parents to stay out of the water. If someone must go into the water to retrieve something lost over the side, power to the dock should be disconnected.

  “If you suspect electrical leakage, contact a qualified electrician to see if there are any stray electrical issues,” said Merriman. “Be advised that less than a third of the electricity used to light a 40-watt light bulb, passing directly through the heart, is almost always fatal.”

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