Within the United States, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that 60 to 70 fatalities and about 10 times as many injuries occur from lightning strikes every year. While the probability of being struck by lightning is low, the odds are significantly greater when a storm is in the area and proper safety precautions are not followed.
When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
The National Weather Service has implemented a voluntary recognition program for communities to enhance awareness of the dangers of lightning. There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, When thunder roars, go indoors! Too many people wait far too long to get to a safe place when thunderstorms approach. Unfortunately, these delayed actions lead to many of the lightning deaths and injuries in the U.S.
When a Safe Location is Nearby
Run to a safe building or vehicle when you first hear thunder, see lightning or observe dark threatening clouds developing overhead. Stay inside until 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder. Do not shelter under trees. You are not safe anywhere outside.
A safe building is one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, and has plumbing or wiring. Examples include a home, school, church, hotel, office building or shopping center. Once inside, stay away from showers, sinks, bathtubs and electronic equipment such as TVs, radios, corded telephones and computers.
A safe vehicle is any fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle such as a hard-topped car, minivan, bus, truck, etc. While inside a safe vehicle, do not use electronic devices such as radio communications during a thunderstorm. If you drive into a thunderstorm, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area. Do not leave the vehicle during a thunderstorm.
Plan ahead! Your best source of up-to-date weather information is a NOAA weather radio (NWR). Portable weather radios are handy for outdoor activities. If you don't have NWR, stay up to date via internet, TV, local radio or cell phone. If you are in a group, make sure all leaders or members of the group have a lightning safety plan and are ready to use it.
If you are part of a large group, you will need extra time to get everyone to a safe place. NWS recommends having proven professional lightning detection equipment so your group can be alerted from significant distances from the event site.
When a Safe Location is Not Nearby
Remember, there is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can't get to safety, this section may help you slightly lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Don't kid yourself — you are NOT safe outside.
Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or building, follow these last-resort tips. They will not prevent you from being struck by lightning, but may slightly lessen the odds.
- Know the weather patterns of the area. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon, so plan to hike early in the day and be down the mountain by noon.
- Listen to the weather forecast for the outdoor area you plan to visit. The forecast may be very different from the one near your home. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, stay inside.
These actions may slightly reduce your risk of being struck by lightning:
- If camping, hiking, etc., far from a safe vehicle or building, avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
- Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
- If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
- Stay away from water, wet items (such as ropes) and metal objects (such as fences and poles). Water and metal are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.
Lightning is the most consistent and significant weather hazard that may affect intercollegiate athletics.
Education and Prevention
Education and prevention are the keys to lightning safety. Prevention should begin long before any intercollegiate athletics event or practice by being proactive and having a lightning safety plan in place.
The following steps are recommended by the NCAA and NOAA to mitigate the lightning hazard:
- Designate a person to monitor threatening weather and to make the decision to remove a team or individuals from an athletics site or event. A lightning safety plan should include planned instructions for participants and spectators, designation of warning and all-clear signals, proper signage and designation of safer places for shelter from the lightning.
- Monitor local weather reports each day before any practice or event. Be diligently aware of potential thunderstorms that may form during scheduled intercollegiate athletics events or practices. Weather information can be found through various means via local television news coverage, the Internet, cable and satellite weather programming or the National Weather Service (NWS) Web site at weather.gov.
- Be informed of National Weather Service (NWS)-issued thunderstorm "watches" or "warnings" and the warning signs of developing thunderstorms in the area, such as high winds or darkening skies. A "watch" means conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop in an area; a "warning" means that severe weather has been reported in an area and for everyone to take the proper precautions. A NOAA weather radio is particularly helpful in providing this information.
- Know where the closest "safer structure or location" is to the field or playing area, and know how long it takes to get to that location.
A safer structure or location is defined as:
- Any building normally occupied or frequently used by people, i.e., a building with plumbing and/or electrical wiring that acts to electrically ground the structure. Avoid using the shower or plumbing facilities and contact with electrical appliances during a thunderstorm.
- In the absence of a sturdy, frequently inhabited building, any vehicle with a hard metal roof (neither a convertible, nor a golf cart) with the windows shut provides a measure of safety. The hard metal frame and roof, not the rubber tires, are what protects occupants by dissipating lightning current around the vehicle and not through the occupants. It is important not to touch the metal framework of the vehicle. Some athletics events rent school buses as safer shelters to place around open courses or fields.
Lightning awareness should be heightened at the first flash of lightning, clap of thunder and/or other criteria such as increasing winds or darkening skies, no matter how far away. These types of activities should be treated as a warning or "wake-up call" to intercollegiate athletics personnel. Lightning safety experts suggest that if you hear thunder, begin preparation for evacuation; if you see lighting, consider suspending activities and heading for your designated safer locations. Specific lightning safety guidelines have been developed with the assistance of lightning safety experts. Design your lightning safety plan to consider local weather patterns and safety needs.
- As a minimum, lightning safety experts strongly recommend that by the time the monitor observes 30 seconds between seeing the lightning flash and hearing its associated thunder, all individuals should have left the athletics site and reached a safer structure or location.
- Note that thunder may be hard to hear if there is an athletic event going on, particularly in stadia with large crowds. Implement your lightning safety plan accordingly.
- The existence of blue sky and the absence of rain are not guarantees that lightning will not strike. At least 10% of lightning occurs when there is no rainfall and when blue sky is often visible somewhere in the sky, especially with summer thunderstorms. Lightning can, and does, strike as far as 10 (or more) miles away from the rain shaft.
- Avoid using landline telephones, except in emergency situations. People have been killed while using a landline telephone during a thunderstorm. Cellular or cordless phones are safe alternatives to a landline phone, particularly if the person and the antenna are located within a safer structure or location and if all other precautions are followed.
- To resume athletics activities, lightning safety experts recommend waiting 30 minutes after both the last sound of thunder and last flash of lightning. If lightning is seen without hearing thunder, lightning may be out of range and therefore less likely to be a significant threat. At night, be aware that lightning can be visible at a much greater distance than during the day as clouds are being lit from the inside by lightning. This greater distance may mean that the lightning is no longer a significant threat. At night, use both the sound of thunder and seeing the lightning channel itself to decide on re-setting the 30-minute "return-to-play" clock before resuming outdoor athletics activities.
- 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 prompt emergency help. If you are in a 911 community, call for help. Prompt, aggressive CPR has been highly effective for the survival of victims of lightning strikes. Automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) have become a common, safe and effective means of reviving persons in cardiac arrest. Planned access to early defibrillation should be part of your emergency plan. However, CPR should never be delayed while searching for an AED.
These guidelines have been adopted from the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook and NCAA Championships Severe Weather Policy.