Lightning is a consistent and significant weather hazard that may affect sports teams and other groups while they’re enjoying the outdoors. In Colorado, most lightning fatalities occur in June, July and August, when more people are outdoors and thunderstorms are more prevalent. Within the United States, the National Severe Storms Laboratory estimates that 100 fatalities and 400-500 injuries requiring medical treatment occur from lightning strikes each year. While the probability of being struck by lightning is extremely low, the odds are significantly greater when a storm is in the area and the proper safety precautions are not followed.
As someone in charge of outdoor activities or as a parent with children involved in outdoor activities, it is important to help educate yourself and others about the dangers of lightning so that injuries and fatalities can be prevented. Education begins with background information on lightning. Prevention should begin long before any outdoor activities take place. The following steps are helpful to mitigate lightning hazards.
Monitor the weather
Designate a chain of command as to who monitors threatening weather and who makes the decision to remove people from an outdoor activity. An emergency plan should include planned instructions for participants as well as spectators. Those who are monitoring the weather should obtain a weather report each day an activity is planned. Be aware of potential thunderstorms that may form during an event.
Also, be aware of National Weather Service-issued thunderstorm watches and warnings, as well as signs of thunderstorms developing nearby. A watch means conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop. A warning means that severe weather has been reported in an area.
Know your location
Lightning often strikes tall, large objects. If you’re outside, get away from high ground and don’t stand under tall trees or poles. Make yourself as small as possible, but don’t lie flat on the ground. The best thing to do is to squat low to the ground, put your hands on your knees with your head between them.
Know where the closest safe structure or location is in relation to the field or area of the activity. Know how long it takes to get there. A safe structure or location is any building normally occupied or frequently used by people. A building with plumbing or electrical wiring that acts to electrically ground the structure is ideal. If such a building isn’t nearby, a vehicle with a hard metal roof and rolled-up windows — not a convertible or a golf cart — can provide a measure of safety. While in the vehicle, do not touch the sides of the car, which is the path that electricity would follow if it struck the vehicle.
Understand the flash-to-bang method
Be aware of how close lightning actually is. 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 and its distance from the observer. To use the flash-to-bang method, count the seconds from the time the lightning is seen to when the clap of thunder is heard. Divide this number by five to determine how many miles away the lightning is occurring.
Follow National Severe Storms Laboratory guidelines
- As a minimum, when a flash-to-bang count of 30 seconds (six miles) is reached, all individuals should have left the event site and reached a safe structure.
- The existence of a blue sky or the absence of rain does not mean lightning will not strike. Lightning can, and does, strike as far as 10 miles away from where it is raining.
- If no safe structure is nearby, find a thick grove of small trees surrounded by taller trees or find a dry ditch. Crouch down with only the balls of your feet touching the ground, wrap your arms around your knees and lower your head. Do not lie flat because lightning often enters through the ground rather than from overhead. Be sure you’re away from metal objects, individual trees, water and open fields.
- If you feel your hair stand on end or your skin tingle, crouch down immediately, as described above.
- Don’t use a landline telephone except in emergency situations. A cellular phone or portable phone is a better alternative if used within a safe structure.
- Wait at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or sound of thunder before resuming outdoor activities.
- If someone is struck by lightning, he or she does not carry an electrical charge so it is safe to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Prompt, aggressive CPR has been highly effective for the survival of victims of lightning strikes.