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Dock electrical safety still an issue at Lake of the Ozarks

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:26 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 28, 2013
After three people were electrocuted while swimming near docks in the Lake of the Ozarks last summer, electricians were busy with calls from homeowners worried about the safety of their dock wiring.

LAKE OF THE OZARKS — For Dan Strickland, last year's three electrocutions in four days on the lake hit close to home.

As an electrician with Mr. Rewire in nearby Eldon, Strickland knows preventing the deaths could have been as simple as buying a $20 voltage detector. As a person who has lived near the Lake of the Ozarks for almost 10 years, he realizes the tragedies could have happened to anyone.

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That's why Strickland has offered free electrical inspections of docks for almost a year. Electricians all around the lake have been flooded with requests to inspect docks over the past year. And still, an estimated 20,000 of the 25,000-plus docks on the lake fail to meet electrical code standards.

Last July's three electrocution deaths included two Ashland children — ages 8 and 13 — in one incident, and a 26-year-old Hazelwood woman in the other. All three of the people were electrocuted while swimming near docks that were not ground-fault-protected, according to two previous Missourian stories.

Neither of the docks had been inspected, said Ed Nicholson, chief fire marshal for the Osage Beach Fire Protection District.

For those who know how to prevent such deaths, the safe wiring of docks is more pressing than any other safety hazard on the lake, including concerns about boating safety, water quality and E. coli.

"We have this bigger issue. I've been screaming about it for years," said Michael Boyd, an electrician in Osage Beach for Integrity Electric, on the eastern edge of the lake. He said dock safety should be the primary focus of those living around the water. For some, it is.

A program instituted in 2006 requires dock owners to meet the 2005 National Electrical Code. If they don't, they can't receive a dock permit from Ameren Missouri, which owns the lake.

The code includes requirements such as how far from the dock a shut-off switch needs to be, and specifications for what types of materials must be used.

However, with 25,000 or more docks lining the lake's shores, ensuring that they're all up to code is as hard as finding a quiet corner of the lake on the Fourth of July.

Boyd estimates that only 20 percent of docks comply with the code. He may be about right, according to the findings of a study by the Osage Beach Fire District.

In its study, the fire district found that 49 of 64 docks (77 percent) failed to meet code requirements in a neighborhood on Route KK, Nicholson said.

Only 12 docks (19 percent) were up to code, Nicholson said. The remaining three did not have electricity.

"That's what the whole lake looks like," he said.

It's not the code; it's finding the docks

To receive a dock permit from Ameren, owners are required to have their dock inspected and approved by their fire district. Although seemingly straightforward, the policy is often not as far-reaching as it seems.

Once a permit is issued for a dock, Ameren has no requirement that it be inspected again as long as no changes are made to the dock.

That's why eight fire districts adopted the 2006 program, which expands the criteria for when a dock must be inspected. Under the program, an inspection is triggered by three separate circumstances: when a new dock is built, when a dock is moved and anytime a dock is modified.

Although participation in the program is optional, most of the lake is subject to its  requirements. The fire districts that participate are: Rocky Mount, Lake Ozark, Village of Four Seasons, Northwest, Osage Beach, Sunrise Beach, Mid-County and City of Camdenton.

As was the case with the docks where the electrocutions took place last summer, some areas are located in fire districts that do not participate in inspection program and are beyond the reach of inspection requirements.

Some electricians and public safety officials would like to see this change, and Boyd is among them. "My dream is that the whole lake would be covered," he said.

Jeff Green, the shoreline management supervisor for Ameren, said he thinks the company, fire districts and electricians in the area have done a good job of improving safety on the lake since implementing the inspection program in 2006. However, dock owners should also play a role.

"Each individual dock owner needs to ensure that their dock is safe," Green said.

He stressed that even a dock which has just been inspected can become unsafe and damaged due to waves and other factors.

More inspection requirements?

Despite measures being taken by Ameren and those already in place under the 2006 program, Nicholson said there is no enforcement process for docks built before 2006 if they haven't been modified.

To address this, Ameren and fire district chiefs in the participating areas have explored adding change of ownership as a fourth trigger for the inspection process, according to Green and Nicholson.

Adding this fourth trigger would be a large step toward incorporating more docks into the program because there are so many changes of ownership at the lake, Green said.

Ameren is also in the process of inspecting every lakefront parcel of land at the lake and will be looking for electrical problems on docks, Green said. The company can fine dock owners up to $2,000 and revoke their dock permits for violating regulations but rarely has to do so, he said.

"It's pretty rare that people jeopardize their permit," Green said. "They usually work with us to make the necessary changes."

For many electricians and lake residents there's still room for improvement though. As more attention has been paid to dock wiring, owners have began to request inspections of their docks more than before.

Since July 9, 2012, when the second of two incidents took the life of the 26-year-old woman, the Osage Beach Fire Protection District has inspected 125 new docks and performed 210 free inspections, Nicholson said. Before the incidents, they had not performed any free inspections.

Osage Beach has discussed having an across-the-board inspection requirement but doesn't have the manpower to do it, he said. However, he and other district chiefs are trying to incorporate more docks into the inspection program. They're meeting opposition from some lake residents who don't want their docks regulated.

"When we first started, there were a lot of people against us," Nicholson said.

"If some big petition came down with 20,000 signatures that said 'we want inspections,' then we could do it," Nicholson said. "It's gonna take the public to push inspections lakewide."

Easy to be out of code

Of the 12 docks Keith Bennett of Mr. Rewire has inspected this season, all of them have been out of code.

Of the violations he finds, 80 to 90 percent are because a dock does not have a Ground Fault Indicator (GFI), which is the device that cuts power to the dock if it detects an unsafe spike in electric current, Bennett said.

"The jump can happen from just a split second of metal touching," he said.

Most electrical work has a lifespan of 20 to 30 years, Bennett said. When it comes to docks though, that lifespan is much shorter.

Bennett says much of the electrical work on docks won't last as long because of waves, weather and other factors, which is why he encourages owners to have their docks inspected at the beginning and end of the lake season.

"Some people leave here in September and don't come back until May," he said. "A lot can happen between then."

Although some question the necessity of dock inspections, Bennett points to last summer's electrocutions as a reason to check docks for hazards.

"It was a shame it took something like that to bring attention to it," he said.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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