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NFPA Impact: Marina fire standards are being overlooked

In the heat of summer, many people are out enjoying time on the water and around marinas. This brings to mind the fact that I was asked to speak at a recent conference about NFPA 303 – Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards.

July 17, 2017 
By Shayne Mintz

It wasn’t until I started researching presentation material that I realized the issue of electric shock drowning (ESD) has become important to the fire service. While not specifically fire related, this research interested me from a life safety and rescue perspective.

According to a list compiled by Quality Marine Services there have been 84 deaths and 49 near-deaths attributed to ESD since 1986.  However, it is difficult to determine if the shock alone can kill, or if the death is a result of drowning after the initial shock. No other public authority or organization tracks these incidents, but I believe it’s very likely that the actual number of occurrences is probably higher due to incidents being misclassified as drownings.

An ESD occurs as the result of a swimmer coming in contact with an electrical current that has leaked into the water from a nearby power source.

On several occasions, I have witnessed situations at marinas during which an improper or damaged extension cord from a live power supply is laid across a dock to power electrical components on board boats. Often, we see people playing in the water near a dock or marina that has an energized power supply close by, or someone entering the water to inspect the hull of a boat at a ramp or a dock that may be connected to live electrical power.

Marine electrical shocks can have very different results depending on circumstances. It is possible that a person experiencing a marine electrical shock may feel nothing at all, perhaps a slight tingle; or the person could be seriously injured, or even killed. Energizing may come from errant or improperly stored, connected or maintained electrical cords, faulty or poor electrical shore power hook-ups, or a result of do-it-yourself work by an unqualified handyperson unfamiliar with the differences between dry land and marine electrical codes.

There are three ocean coasts and a vast number of lakes and waterways in Canada; with that comes myriad marinas, yacht clubs and boatyards.

Marine environments are corrosive and can be hard on electrical equipment. Many marinas and boat docks may lack proper ground-fault circuit interrupters; compounding the problem is a serious lack of safety inspections on several fronts by the marina owners, boat owners and the authorities having jurisdiction

Unfortunately, enforcement at marinas can be rare because many communities either don’t see enforcement as being within their range of regulatory authority, or lack the resources to commit to a strong inspection and enforcement program.

In addition, due to a lack of awareness, fire inspectors are not familiar with NFPA 303 and its inspection requirements.

The most recent revision of the NFPA 303 (2016) requires annual inspections of electrical wiring and ground fault protection at marinas, and boats plugged into the marina’s electrical power.

The NFPA’s research branch, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) conducted a study in 2014 titled “Assessment of Hazardous Voltage/Current in Marinas, Boatyards, and Floating Buildings,” in the hope that facts about electric shock drowning will lead to better standards and a safer environment in and around marinas.

The study recommended that all marinas have ground-fault monitors that sense when an electric current is too high and trips a circuit breaker. The study also considered the technical concerns of ensuring appropriate current levels that would trip or interrupt circuits for these facilities. The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association recommends that swimmers avoid areas near marinas, docks or boatyards.

NFPA 303 is intended to provide a minimum level of safety to life and property from fire and electrical hazards at marinas, boatyards, yacht clubs and docking facilities.

With a proactive approach by local fire prevention authorities, hopefully future ESDs will be prevented, but more awareness is needed: fire departments that have these types of facilities in their jurisdictions can begin to take the lead using NFPA 303 as a guide to ensure safe marinas and boatyards. This resource is available through the NFPA website under codes and standards.

Shayne Mintz has more than 35 years of experience in the fire service, having completed his career as chief of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario. He is the Canadian regional director for the National Fire Protection Association. Contact Shayne at, and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz

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