Lightning is one of the MOST UNDERRATED weather hazards. It makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces one single bolt or one thousand bolts.
Each year in the United States, lightning kills 20-30 people on average and injures 100s more. Tornadoes, hail, and wind gusts get the most attention, but only lightning can strike outside the storm itself. It is the first thunderstorm hazard to arrive and the last to leave.
Because lightning is one of the most capricious and unpredictable characteristics of a thunderstorm, no one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from it. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death. Remember, YOU are ultimately responsible for your personal safety and should take appropriate action when threatened by lightning.
Where to Go
The safest location during a thunderstorm is inside a large enclosed structure with plumbing and electrical wiring. These include shopping centers, schools, office buildings, and private residences.
If lightning strikes the building, the plumbing and wiring will conduct the electricity more efficiently than a human body. If no buildings are available, then an enclosed metal vehicle such as an automobile, van, or school bus makes a decent alternative.
Where NOT to Go
Not all types of buildings or vehicles are safe during thunderstorms. Buildings which are NOT SAFE (even if they are "grounded") have exposed openings. These include beach shacks, metal sheds, picnic shelters/pavilions, carports, and baseball dugouts. Porches are dangerous as well.
Convertible vehicles offer no safety from lightning, even if the top is "up". Other vehicles which are NOT SAFE during lightning storms are those which have open cabs, such as golf carts, tractors, and construction equipment.
What to Do
Once inside a sturdy building, stay away from electrical appliances and plumbing fixtures. As an added safety measure, stay in an interior room.
If you are inside a vehicle, roll the windows up and avoid contact with any conducting paths leading to the outside of the vehicle (e.g. radios, CB's, ignition, etc.).
What NOT to Do
Lightning can travel great distances through power lines, especially in rural areas. Do not use electrical appliances, ESPECIALLY corded telephones, unless it is an emergency (cell phones are safe to use, as are laptops that are not plugged in).
Additionally, do not take a shower or bath as both water and metal are good conductors of electricity.
Lightning Safety Plan
A lightning safety plan should be an integral part of the planning process for any outdoor event. Do not wait for storm clouds to develop before considering what to do should lightning threaten! An effective plan begins LONG before any lightning threat is realized. You can't control the weather, so you have to work around it!
Detailed weather forecasts are accurate only out to seven days at best, but outdoor events are often planned many months in advance. Because of this limitation, every outdoor event coordinator should consider the possibility of lightning, especially if the event is scheduled during the late spring to early autumn months.
The key to an effective lightning safety action plan lies in your answers to the following questions:
- Where is the safest lightning shelter?
- How far am I (or the group I am responsible for) from that location?
- How long will it take me (or my group) to get there?
Knowing the answers to these questions BEFORE thunderstorms threaten will greatly reduce your chances of being struck by lightning!
When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors
Studies have shown that most people struck by lightning are struck not at the height of a thunderstorm but before and after the storm has peaked. Most people are unaware of how far lightning can strike from its parent thunderstorm. Lightning can strike more than 10 miles away from the location of rainfall.
Therefore, if you can hear thunder, that IS YOUR WARNING that you are within striking distance. Seek safe shelter immediately. Remember these lightning safety rules: When thunder roars, go indoors and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder. For those who are hearing impaired, remember See a Flash, Dash Inside. DO NOT wait for the rain to start before seeking shelter, and do not leave the shelter just because the rain has ended.
With common sense, you can greatly increase your safety and the safety of those around you. At the first clap of thunder, go to a large building or fully enclosed vehicle and wait 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before you go back outside.
To minimize your personal risk of being struck by lightning when outside, Plan Ahead! Make sure you get the latest weather forecast at weather.gov before going out, and always know where safe shelter is if thunderstorms threaten.
Your behavior when thunderstorms are in the area determines your personal risk of being struck by lightning. The best way for you to protect yourself from lightning is to avoid the threat. You simply don't want to be caught outside in a storm.
Utilize tools like smartphones with weather apps and NWS local radar to track the weather around you, especially if you will be away from sturdy shelter (such as while boating, camping, etc.). Portable NOAA Weather Radios and AM/FM Radio can also be utilized. If the forecast changes on weather.gov or you notice storms beginning to develop around you, move towards shelter immediately; do not wait for the rain to begin or for the first instance of thunder. If the sky looks threatening or if you hear thunder, get inside a safe place immediately.
For Small Groups
Plan Ahead! Make sure you and someone else in the group gets the weather forecast before going out, and make your lightning safety action plan known to all members in the group.
Designate one of the members to monitor the weather via their smartphone using weather.gov, NWS Doppler radar, and other mobile weather apps so you will always have the latest forecast. Portable NOAA Weather Radios and AM/FM Radio can also be utilized. If thunderstorms are expected and you go ahead with your planned outdoor activity, have a lightning safety plan in place. Upon arriving on-site, determine how far away your shelter is in case lightning threatens. Remember to account for the time it will take to get to your safe location.
If you hear thunder, even a distant rumble, immediately move all to a safe place. Do not wait. You are in danger of being struck by lightning. Do not resume outdoor activities until 30 minutes after the last thunderclap.
For Large Groups
Plan Ahead! Make sure the event organizers responsible for safety get a good weather forecast before the event begins, and make your lightning safety action plan known and used by all event organizers. Safety organizers should monitor the weather via their smartphones utilizing local NWS radar, weather.gov forecasts, and other mobile weather apps. Portable NOAA Weather Radios and AM/FM Radio can also be utilized.
Since it may take considerable time to evacuate people to a safe location, personal observation of the lightning threat may not be adequate, especially for fast moving lightning storms. Hand held or portable lightning detectors should be made available so that lightning can be observed at significant distances from the event site. Event organizers should know how long it will take to get people to safe shelter.
With large groups of people, safe locations must be identified beforehand, along with a means to route people to these locations. Event organizers might consider placing lightning safety tips on programs, score cards, etc. Lightning safety placards set up in strategic locations can be an effective means of raising awareness and communicating the lightning threat to the attending audience.
Learn more at the National Weather Service Lightning Safety website.