Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) has been in the news recently, and rightfully so. ESD is a very real threat when in fresh water, especially near docks. Electric Shock Drowning has become the catch-all phrase that encompasses all in-water shock casualties and fatalities. The result of the passage of a typically low-level AC current through the body with sufficient force to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, rendering the victim unable to help himself / herself while immersed in fresh water, eventually resulting in drowning of the victim. Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution. Fortunately, ESD injuries and deaths can be prevented.
First, it’s important to understand how electricity gets into the water. In a properly functioning electrical system, all of the 120-volt AC current that goes into the boat through the shore power cord returns to its source — the transformer ashore or on the dock where it originated. For any of that current to wind up in the water, three things have to occur: electrical fault, AC ground default, and no ground fault protection.
Second, know how to prevent ESD: don’t horse around or play on docks as falling into the water (or swim near an energized dock) could expose you to electrical current. It’s also crucial to check if your boat is leaking electricity and then to eliminate any leakage.
What do you do if you’re in the water and feel a tingling sensation? DO NOT swim toward the dock, instead swim away! SHOUT as loud as you can and try to stay upright. Alert the dock or marina to shut off power until the problem is solved, and then head to the hospital to ensure there are no lingering effects.
What do you do if you need to rescue an ESD victim? Know how to distinguish drowning from ESD (see Alert for how to recognize “normal” drowning; tingling, numbness or pain all indicate ESD); fight the instinct to enter the water; 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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