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While dock inspections rise, deaths continue at Lake

As dock inspectors at the Lake of the Ozarks continue to take a large number of requests in 2015, deaths continue due to electric shock.

“We learn about it down here because it happens every so often,” Ed Nicholson, fire marshal for the Osage Beach Fire Protection District, said. “So we’re kind of aware of it. But it’s something we go out and teach, it’s not on a lot of people’s radar.”

Nicholson and his district stay busy with several dock inspections a day. Despite the noted increase in checks through the last several years, a recent death prompted ABC 17 News to revisit an issue it investigated in 2013.

On June 21, 21-year-old Marcus Colburn swam near the dock he and his family from Illinois rented in Wood’s Hollow Cove. Witnesses say breakers at the property kept tripping that day, and they called the property owner to have an electrician fix the problem the next day. While Colburn swam at night, someone turned the power back on to light up the dock.

When Colburn felt the tingle of electricity in the water, according to the fire district’s report on the death, he swam to the dock to get out.

“It re-energized the dock at that time, and people were swimming, and we had an electric shock at that time.”

The dock used by Colburn was last inspected in October 2014, when its previous owners sold it. The dock came into the fold of newly inspected docks because of a rule passed in 2013, where any dock involved in a property sale needed an inspection. Nicholson said realtors felt it would help bring older docks up to the applicable safety codes Ameren Missouri, owners of the Lake of the Ozarks, requires.

In 2006, Ameren mandated docks built, moved or modified go through an inspection by one of eight local safety departments before Ameren issued an operating permit. Nicholson said his department performed a little more than 500 dock inspections from 2006 to 2012. But after three deaths from electric shock drowning in 2012, Nicholson said the department has exceeded those numbers in inspections in the last three years.

Nicholson estimates he has inspected 90 docks as part of the new rule on buying a home with a dock. But the majority of his 2,700 docks in Osage Beach FPD’s territory remain without an inspection to bring it to current safety standards.

Still, people with docks built before 2006 face no requirement to have their dock inspected.

“That is something the public will have to decide,” Nicholson said of a mandatory check of all docks. “We asked that question in the public hearings, and there was not a big public outcry for that.”

Despite the sharp increase in dock inspections, Nicholson said people can sometimes see themselves when a problem exists.

“If a breaker trips, there’s a reason it trips, you don’t need to turn it back on,” he said. “You need to leave it off and have a qualified electrician come and check that circuit.”

If you feel electricity in the water – which Nicholson describes as a sensation similar to arms and legs falling asleep – to swim towards the shore, rather than a potentially dangerous dock.

“If you start swimming towards a boat, and start feeling that tingling, don’t continue on to that boat, you need to move away from that boat also, and move to the shoreline and get out at the shore,” he said.

Officials at Ameren Missouri declined a request for interview about electric shock education at the Lake of the Ozarks.

A message to Colburn’s family went unanswered.

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