LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — It could have been fatal.
In an incident that nearly paralleled the tragic electrocution of three children on the July 4th weekend in 2012, several people were swimming around a dock in a cove around the 7 Mile Marker on the morning of July 4, 2014 when they felt a shock in the water.
The individuals exited the water and a local electrician was called. Jon Bussey, co-owner of Catalyst Electric, says when a member of his crew arrived at the scene, “The neighborhood was all up in arms, freaking out.”
Turning off the power to the dock where the people had been swimming didn’t resolve the issue, so the Catalyst crew went property-to-property. Though the situation was dire, the electricians still had to request permission from each property owner before going onto the property to check their dock’s electrical connection.
“We were actually going to call the fire department if we didn’t get permission to go onto the property,” Bussey said.
According to Mid County Fire Inspector Joe Brant, Ameren has granted local fire districts "trespassing rights," for lack of a better term, in such situations—allowing district personnel to move freely along the shoreline if there is an emergency and the source needs to be identified.
Electrician Nathan Agnew, who was on the scene for Catalyst, says he felt the water where the people had been swimming. The electrical current felt "hot" and "stinging," he described. "It made you want to pull away."
Ultimately, the potentially deadly current was found to be originating at a ramp approximately 100 yards from where the individuals had been swimming.
“It was an abandoned ramp and apparently they didn’t cut the electricity off to it,” Bussey explained, noting the ramp was no longer connected to a dock. “We ended up disconnecting it. It’s no longer powered.”
A live wire had shorted to the ramp and was sending 120 volts into the water, he reported.
Agnew explained the dock had been disconnected years ago, but the electric line feeding it had not been disconnected from the main breaker box. Instead, the breaker had been simply turned off and the wire wrapped around the frame of the ramp. During some recent work, that breaker had been turned back on, and Agnew says the owner estimates it had been on—electrifying the water—for a month.
Where the individuals had been swimming, at least 100 yards away, Agnew said the voltage was extremely low and caused no harm. But if someone had jumped in the water nearer the electrified ramp, the outcome could have been fatal.
Bussey noted such incidents point to the unique circumstances surrounding dock ownership in developed coves.
“Poor wiring methods in a cove [are] very common,” he said. “You could have your dock perfectly to code, but your neighbor three doors down [could still pose a risk].”
Bussey urges waterfront property owners to take preemptive action to avoid a tragedy. “I would reach out to your neighbors and make sure they have a disconnect at the shore — a shutoff — ask if they’ve had their dock inspected… most contractors will inspect your dock for free.”
Electric code requires a dock/ramp to have a disconnect or shutoff within 6 feet of the end of the ramp (on the land side). That shutoff must be a GFCI breaker.
He also gave a few other tips:
- Ask neighbors if they shut off their dock power when they are not at their Lake home.
- “If you feel current in the water, don’t swim toward a dock.” Make sure the power is turned off on your dock before approaching it from the water.
- “If you have GFI protection, you need to check that often, maybe every time you’re on the dock.”
- Call a reputable company to inspect your dock
Bussey does not live on the water, but he says if he did, he would contact everyone in his cove and say, “Hey, you need to have your dock looked at, because it could affect me.”