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Six lightning safety tips that could save your life

Updated | June 25, 2013

The statistics are scary: Each year in the United States, an average of 53 people die from lightning strikes, and hundreds more are permanently injured.

To date in 2013, there have been seven lightning deaths: two in Florida and Illinois and one each in Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas.

But remembering just five words could mean the difference between life and death for you or the Scouts in your unit: “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.”

This is a good time for me to bring it to your attention because June 23-29, 2013, is Lightning Safety Week, the National Weather Service’s annual reminder about the dangers of lightning and how to minimize your risk.

Once you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. Follow these guidelines to minimize your risk. I wrote them with the help of Richard Bourlon, the BSA’s Health and Safety expert:

  1. Go indoors. The single most important step you can take in a thunderstorm is getting everyone in your unit inside a safe shelter. There’s no safe place outside in a thunderstorm. A tent does not count as a safe shelter.
  2. Find a vehicle. Your next best bet if a safe building isn’t nearby is to get into an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle.
  3. Get to a lower elevation. If you aren’t near a shelter, get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges, or peaks.
  4. Stay away from isolated or tall trees, bodies of water, or objects that conduct electricity (power lines, windmills, metal fences, etc.) if you aren’t near a shelter.
  5. Assist victims. People struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge and need immediate medical attention. Call 911, and begin CPR or the use of an AED immediately, if it’s needed.
  6. Train yourself. Prepare for lightning and other weather-related dangers by taking the BSA Weather Hazard training, available through MyScouting.
Be Prepared for lightning. It might save a life.

(Photo of the Columbia River by Flickr user Phatman)

15 Comments on Six lightning safety tips that could save your life

  1. A couple more to consider:
    7. Seek shelter in a grove of trees that create a canopy of cover.
    8. Stay sheltered until 30 minutes after hearing the last thunder.
    9. If you can’t get to shelter, keep your feet close together and squat down to reduce the risk of being struck and to minimize potential injury. Covering your ears with your hands can reduce hearing damage. Putting a sleeping pad under your feet provides a small amount of insulation. Set your trek poles, fishing pole, and backpack away from you.

    THe Hazardous Weather module on MyScouting.org has some helpful pointers. http://MyScouting.org (your link doesn’t work)

  2. but Bryan, what could we do when we are camping in tents where vehicles and building are not available ?

  3. Great Post Bryan,

    A few additional pointers and background information might be added to help improve safety.

    1. For those caught outdoors in an open or exposed area where lightning strikes may be
    imminent, and shelter (either in a building or a metal-topped vehicle) are not immediately
    available, experts recommend crouching to the ground with both feet as close together as
    possible, and hands covering ears. If there is a non-conducting surface such as a sleeping bag
    foam pad, or non metal frame pack, crouch on top of those to help insulate feet from ground
    currents. A crouched position close to the ground may lessen exposure to a direct strike, and
    keeping feet together helps to lessen exposure to ground currents that may travel in the soil from
    a nearby strike and pass up via legs to the heart which can cause ventricular fibrillation and
    sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Covering the ears with hands may help prevent hearing loss due to
    the loud noise created by a nearby lightning strike.

    2. Static electricity causing hair to stand up, crackling or popping sounds, or sparks, or a bluish
    glow on metal such as eyeglass frames or wires, may indicate that a strike is imminent and to
    take shelter immediately or assume the crouching position described above if no shelter is
    available.

    3. Never lie down flat on the ground or in a ditch (as older information used to advocate), as
    ground currents can pass through the body causing the same SCA effect noted above. Avoid
    sheltering under rock overhangs or shallow caves as lightning streamers can follow wet rock
    surfaces and strike victims. Deep caves may provide safer sheltering. Rock climbers on exposed
    rock faces should evacuate at the earliest sign of thunderstorms. Being caught on a rock face
    during a storm can have deadly consequences.

    4. Evidence of previous lightning strikes such as split or burned trees or blackened grass in open
    areas or on ridges may indicate a high probability of additional strikes in the same area during
    storms. The old adage that “lightning never strikes the same place twice” is completely false and
    dangerous to believe. Lightning strikes to trees may cause them to fragment (or burn).

    5. If sheltering under dense trees, be wary of high winds that often accompany severe
    thunderstorms and may cause trees to break and fall suddenly to the ground.

    Be aware of possible flash flooding associated with severe storms and stay out of low areas,
    streambeds, even dry gulleys where water can flow suddenly. Floods and flash floods kill more than 150 people annually. A severe storm miles away can cause flash flooding in an area much further downstream that may not even be receiving rain. Never attempt to cross or drive through flooded areas. Move to high ground on foot in case of flash floods.

    Tornadoes are also a risk associated with severe thunderstorms especially in flat open areas, occur spontaneously with no warning, and often cause deaths, injuries and massive property damage. Again sheltering in solid buildings and basements are generally the safest location.

    6. Groups caught out in the open during a storm should spread out widely [50+ feet apart] rather
    than remaining in close contact in case some of the group members are struck or affected by
    ground currents. Others may not be affected and can go to the aid of those who are injured.

    7. Ground currents from a nearby strike can still cause serious injury or death even if none of the
    victims are struck directly by a bolt. This is often seen where herds of cattle or other animals are
    simultaneously killed by ground currents even though there is no evidence of a direct strike on
    any animal, but a nearby tree, fence or the ground may have been hit. Victims of ground
    current-caused SCA may have the greatest chance of being successfully resuscitated with CPR
    and AED and thus probable survival, if promptly cared for by other rescuers.

    8. Some groups carry portable lightning detectors [see link below] which signal when
    lightning is nearby and can give early warning of imminent danger. Lightning can travel from
    clouds as far away as 10+ miles in what appears to be a clear, blue sky, and has been known to
    cause injuries or death of unsuspecting individuals in the outdoors. Always check weather
    forecasts and listen to NOAA Weather Radio for warning of severe thunderstorms in the area.
    Inexpensive NOAA weather radio receivers are miniaturized, portable and can be obtained at
    local electronics stores. Modify or cancel trip plans in exposed areas until weather is less
    threatening.

    [from FEMA website] “Flash to bang” is a way to measure how far away the lightning strike was.
    The sound of thunder can go one mile in five seconds. So if you see the lightning strike and hear
    the thunder ten seconds later, you know the lightning was two miles away. Scientists say that if
    you are less than six miles away, you are in the high danger zone. Scientists know that lightning
    can strike several miles away from a storm cloud

    9. Make pre-activity plans of where to shelter quickly in advance of any outdoor event and
    conduct sheltering drills and lightning strike simulation exercises with Scouts so they are
    familiar and comfortable with what to do if a weather emergency arises suddenly.

    10. If sheltering in a metal top vehicle, be sure to roll up windows and keep hands and body away
    from contact with any metal surfaces. Contrary to popular opinion, vehicles do not protect
    against lightning because of the “insulation provided by rubber tires.”.The metal skin and frame
    of Vehicles acts as a “Faraday Cage” and conducts lightning around occupants directly to
    ground, generally preventing injury to the occupants. Fabric topped convertibles or other
    nonmetal coverings are not considered safe sheltering locations. The effect is similar for aircraft
    struck by lightning while in flight which rarely causes damage to the aircraft, or injury to passengers.

    11. If sheltering in a building, avoid small metal temporary buildings, sheds, carports that may
    not offer sufficient protection. Regularly constructed buildings or homes used as a shelter are
    generally the safest places to be. Stay away from windows, doors, porches, metal chimneys and
    stoves. Avoid any contact with, and do not attempt to use electrical appliances or wired
    telephones. Cordless phones and cell phones are safe to use during a storm but should only be
    used for emergency communications as static from lightning can cause loud noises in the phone
    that may damage hearing. Avoid contact with plumbing and do not use the toilet, sink, shower
    or bathtub during a storm. A finished basement may be the safest location in the building. Do not lay on concrete floors or have contact with concrete walls.

    Remember that lightning is completely unpredictable and may follow very unusual paths to
    ground. Whole house surge protectors installed in electrical breaker boxes can help prevent
    flashover surges that can damage electrical equipment and sometimes start fires. Proper NEC
    code grounding of wiring is essential.

    12. The NWS recommends remaining in sheltered locations until at least 30 minutes after the
    storm has passed from the immediate area [after the last thunderclap is heard] due to the
    possibility of lightning traveling back from the storm cell to the area where individuals are
    sheltered.

    13. A lightning bolt is more than three times hotter than the surface of the sun (20,000 degrees
    C.) and is generally only about an inch wide but appears much larger due to the ionizing effect on
    the air that it passes through. A bolt carries millions of volts and very high currents, so can cause
    very serious injuries or death, and start fires as well as cause severe property damage. The
    thunder accompanying a lightning bolt is caused by the electricity passing through the
    atmosphere when the air suddenly collapses after the bolt has passed [similar to “sonic boom”
    caused by high speed aircraft]. It takes about 20,000 volts to jump just an inch in normal
    atmosphere so you can imagine how many volts are in a lightning bolt that travels several miles
    from a cloud to the earth. Lightning can travel from cloud to ground, ground to cloud, or cloud
    to cloud due to different electrical potentials. [see websites to understand how lightning is
    generated by cumulo-nimbus storm cells. Anvil shaped clouds are very tall and the source of
    tremendous energy.]

    14. Victims of lightning strikes that recover may have lasting neurological impairments that
    may cause severe pain, diminished control of muscles, impaired cognitive abilities and many
    other physical and neurological complications.

    15. Rapid resuscitation of victims who are in sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) with CPR and an AutomaticExternal Defibrillator (AED) may make the difference in surviving a lightning strike. AED’s are now light enough to carry in backpacks or in vehicles on outdoor activities and are very effective to restore cardiac function for victims of SCA from a variety of causes that CPR alone may not resolve in the very critical first few minutes known as the “cardiac chain of survival” after an SCA. For every minute that a victim is in cardiac arrest, the probability of survival decreases by about 10 percent, so rapid defibrillation is essential to lessen brain damage from lack of perfusion with oxygenated blood. [see websites on AEDs. BSA has an arrangement for Councils to help purchase AED’s from manufacturers at reduced rates. Grant funding is available through AED foundations.]

    16. Rapid contact with a 9-1-1 emergency communications center to dispatch an Advanced
    Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) ambulance or aeromedical helicopter is also essential in
    the”cardiac chain of survival.” Having a reliable cell phone or even better, a satellite phone
    (and/or two meter ham radios) and a GPS in remote areas may permit rapidly dispatching such
    resources directly to the scene. Satellite phones while expensive to purchase can be rented for
    outings in remote areas at reasonable rates. There isn’t much that even those with Wilderness First Aid training can do for SCA, other than initial CPR and AED defibrillation, so the victim must be rapidly evacuated to a hospital where ACLS definitive care is available.

    Some helicopter services can fly directly from their base to a remote and isolated area in less than 30 minutes depending on the locale and terrain. It is important to be aware of how to communicate with and properly assist a helicopter to land safely and protect those on the ground. Transporting the victim promptly to a level 1 Trauma Center in under an hour from the onset of the strike can greatly improve survival chances for a lightning strike (or other SCA/ trauma) victim.

    here are links to various websites with more details on topics mentioned above:

    http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/

    http://www.lightningsafety.com/

    http://www.scouting.org/sitecore/content/Home/HealthandSafety/SafetyThoughts/110531.aspx

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning_detection

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_phone

    • Great pointers, Dean! Excellent tips here!

  4. hey,what if you dont have a basement?

  5. Bryan:

    Thanks for that rhyme. I like when lessons are “kid friendly.”

    We don’t get much of that lightning bolt type lightnings in Honolulu but I guess it’s better to safe and seek shelter, huh?

    I think the Boy Scouts teach you so much practical/useful stuff it’s “cool.” Thanks for teaching our youth life skills!

    -C

  6. Stew in VT // June 25, 2013 at 8:12 am // Reply

    Just yesterday 23 New Hampshire Boy Scouts and leaders were taken to hospitals after a thunderstorm struck their Scout camp. No one was struck directly but all felt symptoms.

  7. In light of the events at Camp Bell in NH last night, can I suggest that units make sure that their contact lists are up to date and use them!!! While leaders can get info out rather quickly, sometimes the media is quicker and can send parents into a panic… even if it is not their Scout who is effected. just sayin’

  8. I would jokingly tell our scouts that if you could hear the thunder, then the lightning bolt missed you. But seriously, you need to take precautions even before hearing thunder. We had a camporee at Camp Bovay (near Navasota, TX in the Sam Houston Area Council) terminated early on Sunday morning due to approaching storms. The first notice we had of lightning was a bolt hitting a tree less than 100 yards away – loudest thunder anyone had heard – smoke rose from the tree it hit. We immediately evacuated all scouts to cars, which luckily were parked close by, since we were tearing down the camp, and kept them there until the storm passed – I think the leaders were more shaken, since we were deconstructing a metal-framed dining fly when the bolt struck. But there was no warning of lightning until that bolt hit the tree. The lesson is to be over-cautious, especially in areas that regularly experience thunderstorms, which is coastal Texas year-round. If warm moist air collides with cold dry air – watch out. Some areas(Ariz/NM) have seasons where they don’t have thunderstorms (I’ve heard winter in that area referred to as the season “when the thunder sleeps”), but vigilance beats death by lightning anytime.

  9. Dominique Schnell // June 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm // Reply

    Will you be safe in a tent let’s say at the jamboree when there is thunder and lightning?

    • Mary Ann Cooper, MD // June 26, 2013 at 3:55 pm // Reply

      “NO PLACE OUTSIDE is safe when thunderstorms are in the area” The only SAFE places are inside a SUBSTANTIAL building (one with walls, roof and indoor plumbing and wiring) or an all metal vehicle with the windows rolled up (bus, car, truck). Tents are OUTSIDE and NOT SAFE under any circumstances.

  10. The FIRST responsibility and action should be for BSA leaders to know the forecast whenever they are planning an outdoor activity (“Always Be Prepared” – ? – do they go out when blizzards are predicted, when bears have been sighted in an area or any of a number of other hazards that a prudent leader would avoid?). In this case, severe weather and lightning had been forecast and warnings issued by the local weather office in Grey, Maine, ironically by the meteorologist who started Lightning Safety Week (www.lightnningsafety.noaa.gov) John Jensenius. A more local story (http://www.wmur.com/news/nh-news/Most-Boy-Scouts-hurt-in-lightning-strike-out-of-hospital/-/9857858/20708166/-/3bgpf7/-/index.html) relates that BSA people were monitoring the situation and contacted the on-site leaders. Instead of following BSA lightning safety guidelines that NOAA has worked with the BSA to establish, the leaders chose to shelter and huddle together under tarps – a totally forbidden maneuver by all lightning safety standards (both the ‘shelter’ and the huddling together). I apologize that I cannot give chapter and verse on this because the link does not work – I am working from memory of when we worked with the BSA on their lightning safety program a few years ago. Eventually the boys were evacuated in a bus – if this was possible, then it seems probable that prudent leaders could have evacuated them with the bus, given the lead time that was known from the forecasts, if not have walked out of the area with the given lead time. Additionally, the bus would have provided safe shelter if it had been moved closer to the boys location and they had walked out to it. Eventually, the bus and pickup that evacuated the boys drove to a fire station instead of to the hospital, also poor judgment. This whole episode and ALL of the injuries could have been prevented if leaders had followed lightning safety recommendations in their own literature. In addition, lightning safety ‘rules’ have been known by the general public for years thanks to countless media stories which the NOAA lightning safety team has worked with in the past decade (see http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20130624_lightningsafety.html for how education has changed the injury pattern). Unbelievably, the local story notes that the leaders ‘do not plan to change anything’ – despite the fact that injuries could be avoided in the future given prudent PREPARATION and TRAINING for the leaders and boys – and this was a LEADERSHIP program?? Praise God the boys were not more severely injured – let’s hope that none have the long term disabilities that so often occur with lightning injury! Mary Ann Cooper, MD, core member of the Lightning Safety Week team, Professor Emerita, Emergency Medicine, University of Illinois @ Chicago (BTW, I will be at the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors, International, meeting for the next few days and may not be able to reply to follow-up comments quickly – hopefully, this is clear enough that no replies are needed.)

  11. Bryan, Good post.

    It’s important to remember that there is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. To be safe, you must get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle. Once you start to hear thunder, you’re already in danger.

    The first step in being prepared is to listen to the forecast before heading out. If thunderstorms are in the forecast, you should ensure that a safe shelter will be available immediately to all those involved, in case a thunderstorm develops. If a safe shelter is not available, then the activity should be postponed or cancelled.

    With respect to the incident in New Hampshire, thunderstorms were in the forecast. The scouts and their leaders were very lucky. If the lightning had struck the tree next to them, rather than one 30 feet away, the incident would have been much, much worse.

    Many lightning fatalities occur because people put themselves in vulnerable situations and/or wait too long to start seeking safety. I’m often asked, what should you do if you can’t get to safety. The simple answer is, if you’re outdoors, you can’t be safe! I also mention things to avoid that increase your chance of being struck like standing in the open or under or near tall trees. But more importantly, I tell them to think about what they could do to avoid a similar situation in the future.

    I hope the incident in New Hampshire provides an opportunity for all scouts to think about lightning safety…and to think about what Being Prepared for a thunderstorm truly means.

    I would advise all scouts to visit the NOAA lightning web site for a wealth of information. In particular, I’d suggest the “Dr. Lightning Powerpoint Shows” would provide a good source of information on safety, science, and victims.

    http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov

    Enjoy the outdoors, but stay safe,
    John Jensenius
    Lightning Safety Specialist

  12. Take the online course offere by BSA on Weather Hazards and observe the precautions. Inside is safe just like a ship in the harbor is safe, but as they say in some Eagle COH, ships were not meant to stay in harbor. Likewise Scouts were not meant to stay indoors. The point is – be aware of the potential hazards of being outside – weather, wildlife, etc. – and “Be Prepared” – have contingency plans which can be implemented without having to design them at the time of the hazard. If a storm is coming, find shelter BEFORE it gets there. In time that weather has hit troops, though, they have for the most part responded well – when the tornado hit that camp in Iowa several years back, and the media asked one of them – “How did you know what to do?”, the scout gave him a withering look and replied “We’re Scouts!”

  13. And the 40 K kids at Jamboree?

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