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Introduction to Lightning Safety

Summertime across the Ohio Valley means barbecues, festivals, sporting events, boating, hitting the beach, camping, and many other recreational activities. In short, summertime means a lot more people are spending a lot more time in the great outdoors. But summer is also the peak season for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena -- lightning. Lightning typically receives less attention than other storm-related killers because it does not result in mass destruction or mass casualties like tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes often do. But consider these lightning statistics:  
  • About 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occur in the United States each year.
  • Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has averaged 51 lightning fatalities per year (see graph).
  • Only about 10% of people struck by lightning are actually killed. The other 90% must cope with varying degrees of discomfort and disability, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
  • Typically, the vast majority of lightning victims each year are male (in 261 instances from 2006-2013, 81% of lightning fatalities were male and 19% were female).
How do Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio compare to the rest of the nation in terms of lightning activity and lightning fatalities? In a typical year, the central Ohio Valley sees some of the most frequent lightning activity across the United States. Check out the images and table below for further insight (note: "CG" stands for cloud-to-ground).
 
 
 

 

Avg # CG Strikes Per Year
(1997-2012)

Avg # CG Strikes Per Square Mile Per Year
(1997-2012)

Lightning Fatalities
(2004-2013)

Nationwide Lightning Fatality Ranking
(2004-2013)

Indiana

504,167

14.0

5

Tied 22nd

Kentucky

551,572

13.8

10

Tied 12th

Ohio

460,074

11.1

10

Tied 12th

Lightning activity data taken from National Lightning Detection Network (owned and operated by Vaisala).

The purpose of Lightning Safety Awareness Week is to educate and raise awareness about the hazards of lightning in order to lower the number of deaths and injuries caused by lightning strikes. Remember, lightning makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces one single bolt or ten thousand bolts. Have a lightning safety plan. Check weather forecasts daily. Cancel or postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms develop.
  


Lightning Safety Guidelines

Lightning is one of the most erratic and unpredictable characteristics of a thunderstorm. Because of this, no one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from lightning. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death.

Most lightning victims are not struck during the worst of a thunderstorm but rather before or after the storm reaches its greatest intensity. This is because many people are unaware that lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from its parent thunderstorm, much farther out from the area of rainfall within the storm!

Therefore, if you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance. Seek safe shelter immediately. Remember this lightning safety rule: WHEN THUNDER ROARS, GO INDOORS...and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder. Do not wait for the rain to start before you decide to seek shelter, and do not leave shelter just because the rain has ended.

The best way to protect yourself and your family from the dangers of thunderstorms is to be prepared. If you have outdoor plans, be sure to familiarize yourself with the latest weather forecast before heading out. Consider taking a portable NOAA Weather Radio or AM/FM radio with you. Upon arriving on-site, determine where you will seek shelter in the event of a thunderstorm and how long it would take to reach that shelter. A sturdy, enclosed structure with plumbing and electrical wiring is safest, but if one is not available most enclosed metal vehicles are safe alternatives.

During your outdoor activities, keep an eye to the sky for developing thunderstorms. If thunder is heard, if lightning is seen, or even if thunderclouds are developing, get to your place of shelter without delay! The table below gives examples of adequate and inadequate types of shelter for lightning safety.

 

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 and eventually direct it into the ground.

If no substantial buildings are available, then an enclosed metal vehicle such as an automobile, van, or school bus would be a suitable alternative.

WHERE NOT TO GO:

Not all types of buildings or vehicles are safe during thunderstorms. Buildings with exposed sides are NOT safe (even if they are "grounded"). 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 thunderstorms are those with open cabs, such as golf carts, tractors, and construction equipment.


Being inside a house or other building with electrical wiring and plumbing is your safest option during a thunderstorm, but it does not guarantee you will be 100% safe from lightning. There are still some lightning safety guidelines you must follow while inside a place of shelter to keep yourself safe.
  • Don't use corded phones: Using a corded phone during a thunderstorm is one of the leading causes of indoor lightning injuries. However, it IS safe to use cordless or cell phones as long as they are not being charged.
  • Stay away from windows and doors: Sitting on an open porch to watch a thunderstorm is also dangerous. It is best to be in an interior room during a thunderstorm.
  • Don't touch electrical equipment or cords: Any device that uses electricity (e.g. computers, televisions, household appliances, etc.) is susceptible to a lightning strike. Electrical surges caused by lightning can damage electronics (even at some distance from the actual strike), and a typical surge protector will do little to protect the device (or the person using it) if lightning should strike. So consider unplugging certain appliances or electronics, but for your own safety do this BEFORE the storm arrives.
  • Avoid plumbing: Metal plumbing and the water inside are both very good conductors of electricity. Therefore, do not wash your hands or dishes, take a shower or bath, do laundry, etc. during a thunderstorm.
  • Refrain from touching concrete surfaces: Lightning can travel through the metal wires or bars in concrete walls and flooring, such as in the basement or garage.
  • If inside a vehicle: Roll the windows up and avoid contact with any conducting paths leading to the outside of the vehicle (e.g. metal surfaces, ignition, portable electronic devices plugged in for charging, etc.).
 

Lightning Myths and Facts

Myth: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch him, you'll risk being electrocuted.
Fact: The human body does not store electricity, and lightning victims require immediate medical attention. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim in order to give them first aid. Call 911 for help.

Myth: If it's not raining or there aren't any clouds overhead, you're safe from lightning.
Fact: Lightning often strikes several miles from the center of a thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. In fact, "bolts from the blue" can strike as far as 25 miles out from the parent thunderstorm. That's why it's important to seek shelter at the first indication of a thunderstorm and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.

Myth: The rubber soles of shoes or rubber tires on a car will protect you from a lightning strike.
Fact: Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning, but most vehicles with metal tops and sides do provide adequate shelter from lightning because the charge travels through the metal frame and eventually into the ground. Just be sure to avoid contact with anything inside the vehicle that conducts electricity. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning.

Myth: "Heat Lightning" occurs after very hot summer days and poses no threat.
Fact: Many people incorrectly think that "heat lightning" is a specific type of lightning. Actually, it is just lightning from a thunderstorm that is too far away for any thunder to be heard (thunder is seldom heard beyond 10 miles under ideal conditions). If the storm approaches, the same lightning safety guidelines above should be followed.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place or object repeatedly, especially if it's tall, pointy, and isolated. The Empire State Building is struck by lightning nearly 100 times each year.

Myth: If caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree.
Fact: Seeking shelter under a tree is one of the leading causes of lightning related fatalities. Remember, NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Myth: Metal structures or metal on the body (jewelry, watches, etc.) attract lightning.
Fact: The presence of metal has no bearing on where lightning will strike. Mountains are made of rock but get struck by lightning many times a year. Rather, an object's height, shape, and isolation are the dominant factors that affect its likelihood of being struck by lightning. While metal does not attract lightning, it obviously does conduct electricity, so stay away from metal fences, railings, bleachers, etc. during a thunderstorm.

Myth: If caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should lie flat on the ground.
Fact: NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Learn all about the science of lightning and take a quiz to test your knowledge!

 

 

Analysis of Lightning Fatalities

 

A Detailed Analysis of Lightning Deaths in the United States from 2006 through 2013

 


Lightning Safety Resources
 

For You and Your Family

For Outdoor Workers

For Stadiums and Large Venues

For Kids (games & other fun stuff)

For Lifeguards (zip file)

For Counties and Communities

For Teachers

For Coaches and Sports Officials

For Golf Courses


For a wealth of other information about lightning safety, the science of lightning, medical aspects of lightning, and many other topics, visit the National Weather Service's lightning safety website.