When Lightning Strikes

Lightning is truly an awesome display and a wonder to behold! But, like most of nature’s elements, it has both beneficial and hazardous aspects. While water can quench or drown, fire can heat or scorch, wind can generate or demolish, lightning—although beautiful to watch—can turn deadly in an instant. As an avid outdoorsman spending considerable time in water and wilderness settings, I have had to exercise good judgment in discerning weather conditions, which has been not only important for successful outings, but life-saving as well. This article will explore tools to help staff members use their “best judgment” when assessing the threat of lightning in order to determine “Should I stay or should I go?”

Lightning is unique in that it can precede or follow a storm by many miles, and often seems to strike out of “nowhere.” In addition, lightning does not have to directly strike a person in order to cause harm. According to the U.S. Army Lightning Protection Safety Guide, “The danger from lightning is not confined to a direct lightning strike. Most lightning injuries (and almost all Army lightning injuries/fatalities) come from indirect effects of [a] nearby lightning strike. The two prominent effects are step potential and flashover.”¹ Step potential refers to a lightning strike that hits the ground near a person and then travels across the surface. Flashover refers to a lightning strike that hits a high object nearby—such as a tree—then arcs through the air to another object, such as a person. Both effects should be taken into consideration when developing prevention and emergency-response protocols. The good news for outdoor enthusiasts is that lightning fatalities are extremely rare in the United States, with a reported average of only 49 deaths per year from 1985 to 2014.² 

“Use your best judgment” is certainly not a one-size-fits-all piece of advice, as evidenced by scores of YouTube videos that cause people to cringe, gasp, and proclaim, “Wow, that had to hurt!” Clearly, exercising good judgment is simply not hereditary or instinctual, but rather a blend of coaching, training, education, and experiences that help to shape a person’s ability to make that critical best decision. Staff and camper safety is a high priority in programs throughout the country, and a reasonable, effective lightning-safety plan will assist field staff in making informed judgment calls. In doing so, an effective safety plan should include the following components:

  • Monitored tracking
  • Visual tracking
  • Emergency response. 

Monitored Tracking

Monitored tracking has evolved with the development of web-based, mobile, and phone app weather-tracking tools. Some are more dependable than others based on the geographic location of the program site, and the strength or availability of a Wi-Fi signal or phone network access. A major disadvantage of most automated detection systems is that the first strike of lightning cannot be predicted. Therefore, these monitoring tools are only effective at tracking the path of actual lightning strikes in order to predict the path of a storm, as well as the length of time until a storm might pass within a hazard zone.

For fixed program locations, it is suggested that a lightning detector be put at the main office and be monitored by staff throughout the camp’s programming schedule in order to detect the distance and path of known lightning strikes. In addition, office staff should be given access to web-based radar tracking sites to monitor the movement of lightning through their programming areas. The following are recommended:

http://www.intellicast.com/  (includes lightning radar)

http://weather.weatherbug.com/  (includes SPARK lightning radar)

http://www.accuweather.com/

http://www.weather.com/

For trip site locations, especially those with limited cell-network access, a battery-operated, hand-held lightning detector can be used. These devices have improved over the years and can detect lightning strikes several miles away, thus alerting leaders to take cover before the threat enters a hazard zone. Where cell service is dependable, I recommend the following mobile weather apps:

Android Phones

Weather Bug (*includes SPARK feature for lightning detection)

AccuWeather

Weather Channel

Radar Now

Weather Pro

IPhone

Weather Channel

Dark Sky

Weather Underground

AccuWeather

WeatherBug (*includes SPARK feature for lightning detection)

Visual Tracking

While technology is helpful, it cannot always replace boots-on-the-ground visual tracking, which is necessary for field staff conducting outdoor activities. For these activities, the nationally recognized “Flash/Bang 30-30 Rule” should be used: 

When lightning (flash) is observed, count the time until thunder (bang) is heard. If that is 30 seconds or less, seek shelter, as lightning is within the 6-mile hazard zone. Then, wait at least 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder and complete a visual scan from an unobscured location. 

If technology is available, lightning detectors, radars, or weather apps can verify that the hazard has passed before returning to scheduled outdoor programming.

Emergency Response

Lastly, a Lightning Emergency Response Plan should be developed and included in the staff training schedule that addresses the proper steps to take during a lightning event. I suggest following the NOAA recommendations:

When lightning is determined to be encroaching into a hazard zone, take the following actions:

Evacuate:

  • Swimming pools, lakes, and other water-contact activities
  • High elements activities
  • Open-field activities.

Seek shelter immediately:

  • Inside a building (do not touch any metal inside)
  • Inside a fully enclosed vehicle
  • At the lowest point on the ground (a ditch)
  • If you feel your hair stand on end or skin tingle, or hear crackling noises, assume the lightning-safe position (see illustration). Crouch on the ground with your weight on the balls of your feet, feet close together, head down, ears covered. 

During a lightning storm:  

  • Do not use the telephone or hand-held radios—including cell phones.
  • Do not touch pipes or other metal objects.
  • Do not lie flat on the ground.
  • Do not go under solitary objects.
  • Do not remain in a close group if caught in the open—spread out.
  • Do not take the procedures lightly—they could save your life.

Oftentimes camp staff members are young adults who lack needed life experience in order to develop effective judgment skills in a crisis. In order to compensate for this, effective training is essential. As the saying goes, “During a crisis, people do not rise to the occasion, but rather fall to the level of their training.” In the end, no tool, protocol, or training is 100-percent effective at eliminating any threat—lightning included. However, equipping staff with these simple tools will provide greater opportunities to safeguard themselves and campers in your program. 

¹ U.S. Army Lightning Safety Guide, 2002

² NOAA, www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov

Rick Braschler serves the camping industry as a resident risk and safety director for Kanakuk Kamps in Missouri, a Senior Risk Consultant working with youth serving organizations worldwide, and as a subject matter expert on camping, youth protection and outdoor recreation.  He can be reached at rick@kanakuk.com.