Harbor from Fort Mackinac

4 Tips to Help Prevent Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) Over Memorial Day Weekend and Throughout the Summer Months

Arlington CemeteryMemorial Day provides us all with a time to reflect on the fallen heroes that have sacrificed their own lives, so we can have the many freedoms they provided us. Here in Michigan, and likely in many other states, Memorial Day is seen as the “Gateway to Summer.” Somewhat of a “rite of passage” into warm weather, BBQs, and vacations, while spending time with those we care most about. Our family makes it a point to visit Mackinac (pronounced ma-kuh-naa) Island at least once every summer. Mackinac Island is home to Fort Mackinac, established during the American Revolution by the British in 1780 and overtaken by American forces in 1796. The picture shown above depicts the view from elevated Fort Mackinac, looking down onto the Mackinac Island harbor. Every summer when our ferry docks at the island, I look up at Fort Mackinac and think about how grateful I am to have this moment with my family. How grateful I am to all Americans who gave their own lives to help make our individual moments possible.

Kids on the dockFor our trip to the island a couple summers ago, we decided to venture outside our normal day trip and make it an overnight trip. After a long day of sightseeing, after dinner, mom and dad were ready to kick their feet up and relax but the kids, still full of energy that we wish we had, had other ideas. After some intense negotiating, we agreed that the parents would be able to wind down on the porch just outside our room, while watching the kids spend time in the oversized, built-in 25-person hot tub that was just steps away from our room. That same hot tub was just several steps away from the harbor waters. As my wife and I were just getting settled into relaxation mode, I heard it – SPLASH!!! Looking up, I saw three of our four children standing inches from the harbor water, appearing ready to jump in themselves, and the head of our eldest child bobbing in the water. Deciding the tub waters were too hot for them, the kids decided to jump into the harbor waters to cool off. They were having an absolute blast! So, why did I feel like I had just been punched in the gut? “GET OUT!!!”, I yelled, loud enough that I was sure I had awoken the dead from the island. My fatherly instincts had kicked in. Our kids are all great swimmers, so that wasn’t my concern. The issue was Electric Shock Drowning, also known as ESD, that I have learned about since becoming an employee at NFPA.  

It is hard for me to fathom that, as a master electrician with over 30 years’ experience working in a state that has the longest freshwater shoreline in the world, I had never even heard of ESD, before joining NFPA just a few months prior. To be honest, it irked me that I spent so long working in the electrical industry and still did not have the information to help protect my family from this “silent killer”; to protect my family from the same heartache that Lucas Ritz’s family has felt for years, as a result of losing him to ESD. Initially, I learned that ESD is somewhat different from how we typically view electrical hazards, like shock and arc flash. Yes, it is shock related as the title suggests, but it isn’t the direct electric shock that kills. ESD is typically a low-level AC current, induced into the water by defective marina, or boat, electrical systems that passes through the body causing muscular paralysis which renders the victim unable to swim, thereby causing drowning. In many cases, victims don’t even feel the electrical current when they enter the water to swim. Freshwater is particularly susceptible to ESD incidents because the human body is much more conductive than the water itself, permitting more current to flow through the body in freshwater versus saltwater.

Once I learned a little about ESD, I longed to know more so I could help continue to spread the message that had somehow evaded me for so long. In doing so, maybe I could help someone else avoid the heartache of losing a loved one to ESD. As I looked for more information, I found that the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association website was a great resource to help me understand more about what ESD is and how it can be prevented. To date, some of the most helpful tips I have found around preventing ESD are:

  1. Don’t swim in marina waters. While there are lots of things that can happen in marina waters that could cause an ESD incident, there is one thing that will prevent an ESD in every potential instance – not swimming in marina waters. If you don’t enter the water, the risk of an ESD incident drops to zero.
  2. Don’t jump in to help others. When you see someone who appears to be drowning, it is human nature to immediately help. As hard as it is – don’t! While witnessing a potential ESD taking place, jumping in may just add an additional victim. There have been many cases of ESD where it has left multiple victims for this exact reason, including one instance in Arizona two years ago that killed two brothers. If you see what you believe to be an ESD taking place: call 911, turn off power, throw a life ring, and move the person to safety using a nonconductive pole or object.
  3. Swim away from the tingle. If someone is in the water and begins to feel a tingle, they should immediately swim away from where they feel the tingle until it is no longer felt. Instruct them to avoid any metal items, such as ladders that they might otherwise try to use to get out of the water.
  4. Spread the word about ESD. Being an electrician for over 30 years and spending a lot of our family time on the water, I should have known about ESD well before my employment at NFPA. Knowing the tragedy that ESD can cause, it leaves me wondering how many others are unaware. To eliminate ESD altogether, it is crucial that every one of us spread the word about ESD and encourage those around us not to take a chance by swimming in marina waters.

When you mix a hot summer day with nearby cool water, it is only natural for people to want to jump in. That’s all our kids were doing on that Memorial Day weekend a couple years ago. We all learned something that day. As they watched the video that I showed them telling the story of Lucas Ritz, the kids learned about ESD and why dad yelled at them to get out of the water  – because I loved and cared about them. Personally, I learned just how important it is raise awareness of the hazards associated with ESD. Ultimately, a day that could have ended in tragedy, resulted in an understanding of the dangers around ESD and that swimming in marinas just isn’t safe. Considering all that is at stake, we could sure use more help raising awareness of ESD. Won’t you join us?

For more information on Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) and related resources like videos and tip sheets to share, please visit the NFPA “Electrical Safety Around Water” webpage.

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Corey Hannahs
Senior Electrical Content Specialist

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