Memorial Day weekend is almost here and that means thousands of people will soon be at the Lake of the Ozarks, but is everyone aware of the dangers?
In the summer of 2012 three people, including two children, were shocked near their docks and drowned.
ABC 17 News talked to officials in a special report Monday night and said they think the lake is a safer place this year than last year. However, the fact is no laws have changed to enforce safety codes on docks.
Currently, 90 percent of the docks at the lake have never been inspected. The reason is because regulations allow older docks to get a pass. There are some county zoning laws that don’t don’t require it or don’t even exist. On top of all of that, there are just too many docks to inspect.
ABC 17 News dug into the current regulations and found there are few plans to address these obvious dangers.
Now family of victims said something needs to be done so tragedy never strikes again.
However, ABC 17 News found keeping people safe may not have a simple solution.
“One’s too many, but unfortunately we had the ones we had last year and our goal is to not have another one,” said Camden County Presiding Commissioner Kris Franken. This year, everyone at the lake shares the same goal of keeping people safe.
“We need to make sure when people come to the lake for this season that they inspect their docks and make sure everything is up to snuff,” said Jeff Green with Ameren Missouri.
However, with nothing to force grandfathered dock owners to do that, the chance of tragedy still exists.
“The problem is nobody thought about it. Nobody thought about it. And until we had this incident with the tragic deaths this year, I didn’t,” said Rep. Rocky Miller of Osage Beach.
Now that everyone is aware of the danger, should more stringent regulations be adopted to make sure everyone stays safe?
“It starts with personal responsibility, but then we have to go on to the greater good which then brings in those political subdivisions,” said Miller.
Ameren Missouri is the sole entity overseeing the entire lake, but it’s just a business. The lake itself crosses into four counties: Benton, Miller, Morgan and Camden. All have different building codes and different planning and zoning laws. Each has cities that can have various laws as well.
“Before we take that initial step to code the entire lake or the state somehow, I would rather see them try to solve it on a local level,” said Miller.
“Certainly the individual municipalities, the counties as well as the fire districts could adopt something as well,” said Green.
The issue could be taken to a vote on the county level. However, what would people be voting on? One option is an entity to consistently enforce dock codes.
“There are 25,000 docks on this lake, it would be hard for one entity to say they are going to inspect every dock,” said Chris Bachman, deputy chief and fire marshall with Mid-County Fire.
“It’s a very tall order. It’s a lot of work, it takes a lot of manpower, lot of inspectors. People don’t like fees,” said Franken.
There are other options. Firefighters said dock owners should get at least one annual inspection. However, is it practical to force the owners to comply?
“It would definitely be more helpful for us if there was a statewide code for that it,” said Ed Nichols, Fire Marshal at Osage Beach Fire.
“How do you get the permission to get there, do you allow for trespass? There’s a lot of problems that need to be solved on something as giant as that,” said Miller.
ABC 17 News asked Franken if there could even be a regulation where all docks on the lake must be inspected, he said “We could not mandate that unless the authority was given to us by the people through a vote.”
While it is up to the public, the firefighters who see the risks firsthand are already taking action.
“We are trying to expand it, as you said, to all docks on the lake. And how we get there? We don’t know that because of so many docks,” said Nichols.
Currently there are around 25,000 docks at the lake. Most of them have never been inspected, and around 8,000 fall in uncoded territory.
“It’s kind of like the ‘Wild West’ in a way,” said Franken.
“An unincorporated area where they don’t even have the authority to implement an ordinance,” said Bachman.
There’s also no fire authority that conducts inspections, so even if the dock was built after 2006, Ameren waives the mandatory inspection.
As long as people keep using docks at the lake, officials out here are urging them to get educated on what to look for and get their dock inspected.
“Homeowners have most stake,” said Green.
The problem is even if people make sure their dock is safe, there’s no guarantee their neighbor’s is.
“Your dock can be perfectly fine, but you could still get electrocuted by your next door neighbor’s 200 or 300 feet away,” said Franken.
Because people can’t always control if electricity gets into the water, it is important to know what to do in an emergency.
“If you are in the water and you start feeling tingling as you swim to a dock, stop, tread water and back away from that dock,” said Nichols.
“You have to be very careful how you approach someone in the water that has been shocked or you will end up shocked as well,” said Green.
Knowing what to do can stop a future death. With no new laws in place yet, that’s what officials are relying on. ABC 17 News asked officials if they thought we could go into this summer knowing we are better off and safer than the year before.
“I think of course, awareness is up tremendously over last year,” said Miller.
“Every dock you inspect that wasn’t inspected before improves the safety atmosphere of the lake, so absolutely I would say we are a lot safer,” said Franken.
While officials say safety is improving, they are now waiting on the public. If people want to see a change, those in charge are ready to listen.
“I think it’s a serious decision that needs to be handled by the people,” said Franken.
If people are interested in seeing laws or regulations change, local and state officials urge them to come up with a petition. Any change could take months to years.