Lightning strikes are a dangerous thing, and in the United States there are about 100 deaths per year. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but every life is precious. Anything that we can do to help save a life that might otherwise be lost is a good thing.
The first piece of lightning safety has to do with making sure you’re in a safe location when a storm comes in. If you’re at an outdoor event, someone will likely have a safety plan, but you can also plan ahead by locating the nearest safe structures or locations. Buildings that are normally occupied by or frequently used by people, that have plumbing and wiring to act as a ground. You can also seek shelter in a car with a hard metal top and the windows all rolled up. Not convertibles or golf carts. And remember: do not touch the sides of the vehicle.
When you hear thunder, or see lightning, be aware of how close the lightning is to your location. You should also begin to move people to a safe location. I had once heard that the distance of the lightning from your location is about a mile per second between the flash and the thunder, but I learned that when I was a kid and never really questioned it or learned the actual numbers. It turns out that it is quite different.
The flash-to-bang method is the easiest and most convenient way to estimate how far away lightning is occurring. Thunder always accompanies lightning, even though its audible range can be diminished due to background noise in the immediate environment, and its distance from the observer. To use the flash-to-bang method, count the seconds from the time the lightning is sighted to when the clap of thunder is heard. Divide this number by five to obtain how far away (in miles) the lightning is occurring. For example, if an individual counts 15 seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the bang, 15 divided by five equals three; therefore, the lightning flash is approximately 3 miles away.
Regardless of the distance away, figure out the relative distance to a shelter for everyone, and if necessary make alternate decisions and gather help for crowd control. Usually there are a number of leaders that will make themselves known who will be sure that things are going smoothly.
Lightning Safety for Sporting Events
Specific lightning-safety guidelines have been developed for the NCAA with the assistance of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).
- As a minimum, NSSL staff strongly recommend that by the time the monitor obtains a flash-to-bang count of 30 seconds (which means that the lightning is about six miles away), all individuals should have left the athletic site and reached a safe structure or location. Athletic events may need to be terminated.
- The existence of blue sky and the absence of rain are not protection from lightning. Lightning can, and does strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain shaft. It does not have to be raining for lightning to strike.
- If no safe structure or location is within a reasonable distance, find a thick grove of small trees surrounded by taller trees or a dry ditch. Assume a crouched position on the ground with only the balls of the feet touching the ground, wrap your arms around your knees and lower your head. Minimize contact with the ground, because lightning current often enters a victim through the ground rather than by a direct overhead strike. MINIMIZE YOUR BODY’S SURFACE AREA, AND MINIMIZE CONTACT WITH THE GROUND! DO NOT LIE FLAT! If unable to reach safe shelter, stay away from the tallest trees or objects (such as light poles or flag poles), metal objects (such as fences or bleachers), individual trees, standing pools or water, and open fields. Avoid being the highest object in a field. Do not take shelter under a single, tall tree.
- A person who feels his or her hair stand on end, or skin tingle, should immediately crouch, as described above.
- Avoid using the telephone, except in emergency situations. People have been struck by lightning while using a land-line telephone. A cellular phone or portable remote phone is a safe alternative to land-line phones, if the person and the antenna are located within a safe structure or location, and if all other precautions are followed.
- When considering resumption of an athletic activity, NSSL staff recommends that everyone should ideally wait at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or sound of thunder before returning to the field or activity.
- People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge. Therefore, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is safe for the responder. If possible, an injured person should be moved to a safer location before starting CPR. Lightning-strike victims who show signs of cardiac or respiratory arrest need emergency help quickly. Prompt, aggressive CPR has been highly effective for the survival of victims of lightning strikes.
What to do if someone was struck by lightning
Go or call for help immediately
Assess the situation
Is the scene safe? How many are injured?
Check for breathing and a heartbeat
Lightning strike victims often fall victim to cardiac arrest.
As noted above, people who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge. CPR is safe for the responder and has been highly effective.
Treat other lightning caused injuries
Besides cardiac and respiratory arrest, other lightning-caused injuries are burns, shock, brain injury, muscular and skeletal damage, and sometimes blunt trauma including broken bones and ruptured organs. Some victims also experience nervous system disruption with loss of consciousness and amnesia. Treat all these injuries with basic first aid until help arrives. Death by lightning usually results from cardiac arrest.
Now, for a bit of levity, here is video about a woman that survived a lightning strike, thanks to CPR.