Author(s): Ashley Smith. Published on May 1, 2015.

Troubled Waters

A new look at marinas, boatyards, and the problem of electric shock drowning


  • Editor’s note: The 2017 NEC includes a change that reduces the maximum level of ground-fault protection of equipment in marinas and boatyards from 100 mA to 30 mA. This change is intended to limit the amount of electrical current that can pass into the water, thereby reducing related hazards including electric shock drowning.  

  • ON JULY 4, 2012, THE FAMILIES OF 10-year-old Noah Winstead and 11-year-old Nate Lynam were celebrating together on Lake Cherokee, located in the small northwestern Tennessee town of Bean Station. The day started like any other holiday on the lake, filled with swimming, boating, and barbecuing. That afternoon, though, Noah and Nate were swimming in a marina when they received an electrical shock. Noah died instantly from electrocution, and Nate died in the hospital the next day. Several other people who jumped into the water to save the boys were injured, but survived. An investigation found that the source of the electricity was current leaking from a boat that was plugged into the marina’s electrical system.

    Related Content

    Download NFPA conference session:
    Marina and Boatyard Protection: Unique Challenges for NFPA

    Read the Fire Protection Research Foundation study:
    “Assessment of Hazardous Voltage/Current in Marinas, Boatyards, and Floating Buildings.” 

    Read the 2008 U.S. Coast Guard report:
    Electric shock drowning coauthored by David Rifkin and James Shafer. 

    Get involved:
    Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

    Read the proceedings:
    The Fire Protection Research Foundation meeting in Baltimore in August to explore strategies to prevent electric shock drowning.

    Electric shock drowning, or ESD, has gained nationwide attention over the last few years due to high-profile incidents that have led to deaths, mostly among children and young adults. Two children in Missouri died of ESD on the same day Noah and Nate lost their lives. “This has been a hard thing to process because it could have been prevented,” said Jessica Winstead, Noah’s mother. “People just aren’t aware you can get shocked in the water like this.”

    A number of factors contribute to the ESD problem. Marinas, whether saltwater or freshwater, are corrosive environments that can be tough on electrical equipment. Many marinas lack ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), devices that automatically shut off electrical power when they detect a leakage. Compounding the problem is that marinas can be something of a no-man’s-land when it comes to safety inspections. While there are regulations set forth by organizations such as NFPA and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC)—including annual inspections of electrical wiring—enforcement at marinas can be rare because many communities have not designated an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for the facilities, said David Rifkin, founder of a Florida-based company called Quality Marine Services, which specializes in corrosion analysis and control for boats and marinas and offers marina electrical safety consulting.

    “We’ve seen a number of cases where, if an inspection had been done every year, the problem wouldn’t have deteriorated to the point where it caused an accident,” said Rifkin, who has spent the last 15 years researching electric shock drowning and coauthored a 2008 U.S. Coast Guard report on the topic. He has emerged as one of the country’s foremost experts on ESD, and was a copresenter on the topic at last year’s NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. Winstead successfully fought for legislation in Tennessee to require the installation of GFCIs in marinas and to authorize the State Fire Marshal’s Office to conduct safety inspections of boat docks and marinas to ensure code compliance.

    German Creek Marina in Bean Station, Tennessee, where electrical current leakage in the water killed two boys in 2012.

    German Creek Marina in Bean Station, Tennessee, where electrical current leakage in the water killed two boys in 2012. Photograph: Saul young/Knoxville News Sentinel

    A complex relationship also exists between the codes and standards that apply to boats and marinas and their related electrical safety issues. NFPA 302, Fire Protection Standard for Pleasure and Commercial Motor Craft, applies to boats, while NFPA 303, Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards, applies to the facilities that house and service motor craft. NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, covers electrical installations in those facilities, as do an assortment of ABYC documents. The NEC®, however, only covers new installations and does not address other issues such as maintenance and reinspection.

    In light of the safety hazards that exist and the deaths that have occurred, the committee that oversees NFPA 303 has tightened the requirements for ground fault protection in the 2016 edition of the code. The committee also debated whether to ban swimming in marinas; the proposal did not pass, but committee members say the issue remains a topic for discussion. Meanwhile, the Fire Protection Research Foundation is organizing further research into the problem of ESD, work that stakeholders hope will provide a basis for future changes to the relevant standards.

    Invisible danger

    Electric shock drowning can occur when dockside electrical systems, or boats connected to a dockside system, leak electrical current into the water. A number of factors affect the impact the current can have on someone in the water, including the amount of electricity, the size of the person, and proximity to the power source. Depending on those variables, a person can be killed, injured, feel a slight tingling sensation, or experience nothing at all. While ESD tends to occur primarily in fresh water, it can happen in any marina environment depending on the conditions.

    Sometimes the shock alone can kill, and in other instances the shock causes paralysis, which leads to drowning—and can make ESD an elusive culprit. In the latter case, Rifkin said, an autopsy may not be able to determine that electric shock was the cause, though it may be suspected circumstantially through eyewitness reports or by shock sensations reported by rescuers and other swimmers. No public authority or organization tracks the incidents of electric shock drowning.

    Given the lack of data, James Shafer began compiling an unofficial list of incidents about 15 years ago. Shafer, like Rifkin, runs a Florida marine safety consulting business, Harbor Marine Consultants, and the two of them teamed up to coauthor the Coast Guard report on ESD, “In-Water Shock Hazard Mitigation Strategies.” Rifkin has taken over the job of updating the list, which currently documents 73 incidents of known ESD deaths since the mid-1980s and another 41 near misses. Rifkin said he believes the actual number of incidents is probably higher due to many of them being misclassified as drownings.

    NFPA 303 was created to protect lives and property from fire and electrical hazards in waters-edge facilities, such as marinas, boatyards, yacht clubs, and docking facilities, as well as in facilities where boats are stored on land. It does not apply to private boat docks or very large commercial facilities, but it covers almost everything in between, said Ken Bush, fire protection engineer for the Department of Maryland State Police and chair of the Committee on Marinas and Boatyards, which oversees the development of NFPA 303. Provisions apply to the construction and operation of marinas and related facilities, the maintenance of firefighting equipment and systems, electrical wiring and equipment, fire protection, and more. NFPA 303 requires annual inspections of electrical wiring at marinas and annual inspections of boats that are plugged into the marina’s electrical power to check for stray currents.

    Investigators inspect boats and docks at the German Creek Marina in bean station tennessee

    Investigators inspect boats and docks at the German Creek Marina. Photograph: Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel

    The NEC also addresses marinas, and an important change in the new NFPA 303 is that users will be directed to Article 555 of the NEC for guidance on the installation of ground fault protection at marinas and boatyards. In 2011, the NEC was updated to require that marinas have ground-fault protection not exceeding 100 milliamps (mA), or 0.1 amps. If an amount higher than 100 milliamps of electricity leakage is detected, the circuit breaker trips and shuts down the power. Marinas can have several leakage sources, and the level was chosen to provide protection while minimizing nuisance trips. However, 100 milliamps could still be hazardous to someone in the water, which is why a change has been proposed for the 2017 NEC to make 30 milliamps the threshold for GFCI protection, a level that is safer for swimmers, boaters, marina workers, and others.

    According to John McDevitt, a boating industry consultant, NFPA 302 technical committee chair, and NFPA 303 technical committee member, the location of that protection is also important. The NEC requires ground fault protection only at the head of the dock, he said; if a leakage above the accepted limit is detected where ground fault protection exists only at the head of the dock, the entire dock is tripped and loses power. If ground fault protection was also provided at the power pedestals that boats plug into—a pedestal can typically accommodate anywhere from one to three boats—it might be possible to isolate the problem and prevent the entire dock from losing power, McDevitt said. The distinction is important from a compliance perspective, he added. “Boaters are not going to be pleased with marina owners if they’re losing power often, which means marina owners may not be inclined to comply with any new regulations.”

    Although standards exist, there are a number of reasons they are not widely followed, experts say. Many municipalities have not designated an AHJ who is responsible for inspections, whether it’s the fire department, the electrical inspector, the fire marshal, or code enforcement, Rifkin said. With no one in charge, inspections can be overlooked or ignored. Insurance companies do not require inspections as a condition of providing coverage to marinas, he said. Codes and standards, including the NEC, tend to not be retroactive unless they have specific retroactive requirements or recommendations built into them.

    Previous editions of NFPA 303 did not specify regular testing of the ground fault devices. This has been addressed in the new edition, which specifies that inspection of ground fault protection devices will take place at regular intervals and, at a minimum, will occur annually. The standard also requires that deficiencies found during regular inspection and testing (such as damaged or inoperative ground fault protection devices or 120-volt neutral currents flowing through grounding conductors) be corrected.

    According to Bush, fire officials and code inspectors have historically not been familiar with NFPA 303 and its inspection requirements. That is beginning to change, he said, in part because NFPA 303 is now referenced in standards that are more widely recognized, such as NFPA 1, Fire Code. Even so, he said, more awareness is needed.

    Growing awareness

    Even though code enforcement in marinas has a long way to go, national awareness about electric shock drowning is growing. Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas have passed bills to enforce marina safety standards, and Kentucky is considering a bill that would ban swimming within 50 feet of marinas. In all four states, parents of children who have died from electric shock drowning have lobbied for legislation.

    “I can see [these laws] taking flight in other states, but you’ve got to have somebody really behind it,” said Winstead. “We fought. I spoke in front of the state Senate. It takes a lot for someone to say no to a grieving mother.”

    A nonprofit called the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association has been formed to raise awareness, and experts like Rifkin have put together training material that fire departments and inspectors can use to learn about electric shock drowning and identify the risks, as well as tips for first responders on accident scenes.

    Banning swimming in marinas has been a much-talked-about solution. The technical committee for NFPA 303 considered the idea when it drafted the revised 2016 code, but the proposal was voted down. The committee wasn’t comfortable moving forward with the ban because it didn’t have enough details about the size and extent of the area where swimming should be prohibited, Bush said. There were also issues related to signage at marinas notifying boaters, including the size and location of the signage. The issue will come up again the next time the committee meets, Bush said. The next edition of NFPA 303 will not be published until 2021, but the committee can also consider a tentative interim amendment, he said.

    Additionally, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) recently commissioned a study titled “Assessment of Hazardous Voltage/Current in Marinas, Boatyards, and Floating Buildings.” The goal of the study, which was prepared by the American Boat and Yacht Council Foundation and published in November, was to summarize the available information about electric shock drowning and find a technology-based solution for preventing it. The study recommended that all marinas have ground-fault monitors that sense when an electric current is too high and that trip the circuit breaker. The study also evaluated various commercial products designed to do this. The technical concern focused on the appropriate trip level for this equipment—to balance the safety goal against the possibility of nuisance tripping that would cause the real-world implementation of the requirement to be ignored or circumvented.

    German Creek Marina in Bean Station, Tennessee, where electrical current leakage in the water killed two boys in 2012.

     Photograph: iStockphoto

    However, according to Casey Grant, FPRF director, there are other protection strategies that were beyond the scope of this particular study, including addressing the electrical systems on boats themselves, not just marina docks; improved maintenance practices in marinas; and nontechnical approaches such as educational campaigns and marina signage warning of dangers. Because unanswered questions remain, the foundation has arranged a one-day planning meeting in Baltimore in August to discuss other strategies for preventing electric shock drowning and to decide whether further research is needed, Grant said.

    “There’s no lack of people who are concerned and want to do what’s right to prevent electric shock drowning,” Grant said. “That’s what sets this topic apart—we sometimes have a group that’s stone-walling or resistant in some way, but with this issue that’s not the case. There’s nobody fluffing it off and saying it’s not a concern. The challenge here is identifying and implementing the research and other actions that will support realistic solutions, in the codes and standards as well as other methods.”

    ASHLEY SMITH is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Top Photograph: Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel