Protect Yourself in a Thunderstorm
Lightning is a beautiful and awe-inspiring phenomenon, but it can be deadly. Over the past 30 years, lightning has killed an average of 67 people per year in the United States alone. Fortunately, most lightning-related deaths are preventable. Follow these steps to safety the next time there’s fire in the sky.
l Do not attempt to watch a storm through an open window or door or from a porch. Unenclosed areas are not safe, even if in a suitable shelter.
l When seeking lower ground, try to choose an area that is safe from flooding.
Understand what constitutes suitable shelter.
The key to minimizing lightning danger is to get inside a protective structure. Substantial, frequently inhabited buildings (those grounded with plumbing, electrical systems, and, if possible, lightning rods) are best. Small structures, such as stand alone public restrooms, are generally not good choices, and standing under a tree is a very bad choice. If you can’t find a substantial structure, get in a car with a metal roof and sides: if the car is struck, the metal body will conduct the electricity around you, not through you. When you’re outside, determine where the nearest suitable structure is in advance so that you’ll be ready should you be caught in a lightning storm.
Be aware. Unfortunately, if you’re summiting a mountain or out in your bass boat when a storm rolls in, finding shelter can be a real problem. The solution? Make your plans with dangerous weather in mind. Listen to the local weather forecast, and pay special attention to thunderstorm advisories. Research the local climate: in some areas you can almost guarantee a thunderstorm on summer afternoons. Schedule your activities to avoid many high-risk situations. Those hot muggy days are just the thing that a thunderstorm needs to get going.
Watch the skies. When you’re out and about, watch the sky for signs of approaching thunderstorms, such as rain, darkening skies, or towering cumulonimbus clouds. If you can anticipate lightning before the first strike, you can avoid being caught in a bad situation. Note that lightning can, however, strike even in the absence of these indicators.
Get to shelter as soon as you see lightning or hear thunder. Stay inside at least 30 minutes after the last strike. While most people seek shelter if lightning appears to be near, people commonly wait too long to seek shelter. If you can detect lightning, it may be close enough to strike you. Don’t wait for it to strike right next to you (or on top of you) to get to safety. If conditions permit good visibility, and it’s not practical to seek shelter whenever you notice a strike, use the 30 second rule: if the time between a lightning flash and the resulting thunder is 30 seconds or less (aka 6 miles or less), get to shelter immediately.
Minimize your risk if you cannot reach shelter. Sometimes you can get caught in a storm despite the best precautions. If you are outside, move from higher to lower elevations. Avoid large open spaces where you are taller than anything else around you, like a golf course or soccer field, and stay away from isolated objects such as trees and light posts. If you’re fishing or swimming get out of and away from the water immediately. Get away from unprotected vehicles, such as golf carts, and unprotected structures, such as picnic shelters. Avoid long metal structures, i.e. bleachers.
Take last-resort measures if you’re stuck in a dangerous place. If you’re in a group of people, spread out so there are several body lengths between each of you. Assume the lightning crouch: Squat down with your feet together, your head tucked to your chest or between your knees, and your hands covering your ears or flat against your knees. This is a difficult position to hold and it by no means guarantees your safety. However, by making it easier for a lightning strike to flow over your body rather than through vital organs, you may be able to sustain a smaller injury from it.
Know the signs of an imminent lightning strike. If lightning is about to strike you or strike near you, your hair may stand on end, or you may feel a tingling in your skin. Light metal objects may vibrate, and you may hear a crackling sound or “kee kee” sound. If you detect any of these signals, assume the lightning crouch immediately.
Stay safe inside a structure. Once in a suitable shelter, you still need to take some extra precautions. Do not touch land-line phones, plugged-in electrical appliances, or door knobs; keep your distance from electrical or plumbing fixtures, electrical sockets, windows, and doors. Keep windows closed (this is especially important in a vehicle), and try to stay within inner rooms of the structure. Stay out of the bathtub or shower, and avoid indoor swimming pools. In a car, try to avoid touching any part of the metal frame or the car’s glass. In short, stay away from anything that may directly conduct electricity in the event of a strike.
Treat a lightning victim. If someone is struck by lightning, call the emergency services immediately. Determine if his or her heart is beating and if he or she is breathing. Proceed with CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if warranted. If the person is still exposed to possible lightning strike (yes, lightning can and does strike the same place twice) see if you can safely move the person. People struck by lightning do not retain an electrical charge, so do not be afraid of treating a victim.
If there is absolutely no shelter, squat on the ground, with as little parts as possible touching the ground, and your feet close together. Do not lie down as this will provide a bigger target for the lightning to strike.
l If a thunderstorm is approaching, protect electronics and electric appliances by unplugging them in advance. Don’t use corded telephones, as lightning can travel through the cords.
l Wearing portable electronics with headphones during a lightning storm can increase the likelihood of severe injury in the case of a strike – not only to the ears, but to anywhere on the body that the headphone cables lay against.
l Metal does not actually attract lightning, as is commonly believed. Instead, it conducts the electricity in the event of a strike. To be safe, remove any metallic objects from your body. This includes belt buckles, earrings, watches, and small change in your pockets.
l Small boats are dangerous places to be in a thunderstorm. If you can’t get to shore, however, do not enter the water — stay in the boat, even if it’s an open sailboat with a mast. There is a mistaken belief that being in the water is safer, but lightning can just as easily strike water (or the electrical charge can be carried through water), and if you’re struck and rendered unconscious, you don’t want to be in the water.
l Lightning can travel several feet through the ground, so distance yourself from tall, isolated objects. By the same reasoning, be aware that a person may have been hit by lightning, even if you didn’t see the lightning hit the person.
l Commercial lightning detection devices and weather warning services are available and should be considered for use by golf courses, parks, etc.
l Rubber-soled boots do nothing to protect you from lightning.
l Since lightning can and does blow out power systems, purchase and use self-powered radios flashlights to use in case of a power failure.