Lightning Safety

According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, 418 people were killed between 2006 and 2019 by lightening in the United States. Four to six times more survived, but the vast majority of those survivors commonly suffer serious long term effects.

The majority of incidents occurred while the individuals were enjoying outdoor leisure activities. 70% of these deaths occurred in the months of June, July and August, just when many youth-serving organization’s activities take place. In order to prevent a tragedy like this from happening, it is important to consider how your organization can minimize your exposure and keep all program participants safe.

General Protocols

Know Your Area’s Propensity for Storms
Certain states are more susceptible to have lightening than others. Between 2009 and 2018, the following states had the most lightening fatalities:

  • Florida had the most with 49 deaths during the period studied
  • Texas had the second highest with 20
  • Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina and Missouri all had more than 10
  • Colorado, Louisiana, Georgia and New Jersey/New York rounded out the top 10

Know Your Program’s Potential Exposure
Of the overall deaths from lightning, leisure activities contributed to 62%. The following is a breakdown of these activities:

  • 35% of the incidents occurred during water-related activities
  • 14% of the incidents occurred during sports-related activities
  • 8% of the incidents occurred while the individual was camping
  • 7% of the incidents occurred while the individual was riding a bike, motorcycle or ATV
  • 7% of the incidents occurred during a social gathering
  • 4% of the incidents occurred while the individual was hiking
  • 4% of the incidents occurred while the individual was walking
  • The rest of the incidents occurred from activities like: relaxing outside, tourism, children’s play, horseback riding, etc.

Know Your Adversary 

The average thunderstorm is six to ten miles wide and moves at 25 mph. A lightning strike can be five to six miles long, but can be twice that distance. Thunder is usually heard up to twelve miles from the lightning strike. Given the right terrain, humidity and background noise, that distance might be significantly less or slightly more. Generally, if you can hear thunder, then you are in danger from lightning. Lightning strikes can reach up to ten miles beyond the leading edge of a storm, this is why many lightning deaths and injuries occur under cloudless skies. Below are some recommendations on how your organization can be proactive in all programming:

  • Develop a severe weather policy.
    • Identify storms early by thoroughly monitoring the weather
      • During programming, look and listen for lightening
      • To gather more information, check these sources:
        • Weather radio
        • Weather television
        • Internet weather sites
        • Lightening detection device
  •  Develop a plan of where you will evacuate patrons to a pre-established safe zone.
    • The best choice is typically a dry area inside permanent buildings. While in these buildings, avoid:
      • Windows
      • Use or proximity to anything electrical, including switches and anything plugged into the electrical system
      • Use or proximity to telephones
      • All plumbing
      • Any metal objectives
    • A potentially good choice is a car. This should only be done if it has a hard roof and glass windows. While in the car, avoid any metal components.
    • If you are caught in the open with no major building accessible, some options of what you can do are:
      • Stay close to the ground
      • Squat in a cannonball: touch the ground with only your feet
      • Avoid laying down on the ground
      • Avoid trees or any tall objects: they attract lightening rather than provide shelter
    • When taking shelter from lightening, avoid: sheds, picnic shelters, dugouts, open shelters, anywhere under trees and a pool deck
  • Develop a communication system that ensures all involved staff are well versed in severe weather protocols and that they are equipped to direct the participants in their program to safety.
  • Develop criteria for when to stop and when to resume activities.
    • The general rule most people follow is the 30/30 rule. If you can’t count to 30 (saying one-one thousand, etc.) from when you see lightning until you hear thunder, immediately take appropriate shelter. Wait to resume activities for 30 minutes beyond the time when you last hear thunder or see lightning.
    • The 30/30 rule only provides about six miles of separation from the storm. Because lightning is more common at the back edge of a storm and because it may extend over ten miles from its origin, more conservative guidelines suggest maintaining a ten mile differential (i.e., counting to 50).
    • If a storm is slow-moving, delay resumption beyond 30 minutes to ensure safe separation.

Outdoor Activities

In addition to the general protocols above, it is important that if programming is outdoors, you use the additional precautions:

  • Train all staff in procedures regularly. Whenever changes are made, communicate that with everyone.
  • Educate participants on any need-to-know information.
  • If the activity planned is not held adjacent to the organization’s facility, staff should locate, investigate and obtain permission to access a significant structure in which to take refuge in case of lightning before the activity commences.
    • If the activity is at a site where no suitable structure exists (e.g., many parks and athletic fields), certain precautions should be made.
  • Ensure there is adequate transportation present at the site to remove or shelter all the participants if necessary. That transportation should not have significant exposed metal that may endanger the occupants.
  • For activities where the organization does not transport the children (e.g., parents bring them), protocols should require the guardians to stay for the game or practice.
  • If a program needs to be cancelled or suspended, develop a notification process where you can inform everyone that needs to know.
    • If a program is in session and needs to be cancelled, make sure your notification system gives the location for where participants will be transported when there is no safe haven at the program location.

Adventure Activities

Adventure activities or trips generally go to areas where seeking safety in a building is not always an option. It is important to be proactive and stay clear of high-risk areas when thunderstorms are likely. Some additional measures you can take are:

  • Routinely check the radar and proactively move to a rainy day schedule to avoid having to move large groups of kids across a field once the storm has started.
  • As the day progresses, avoid mountaintops and high ridges (especially any that hide the group’s view of oncoming storms), exposed areas and lakes.
  • For every program, set turnaround times, hit the trail early and move quickly, if needed.
  • While out on trails, use a satellite phone to reach out to the main facility about any weather changes.
  • If you hear thunder, get to lower elevation as soon as possible. Avoid peaks, ridges and higher ground.
  • When lightening strikes nearby, everyone should assume a lightening position. This includes:
    • Crouching down or siting on your pack
      • Make sure your feet are together or touching at all times
  • When lightening strikes nearby, spread everyone out as much as possible.
    • Make sure you still follow all supervision policies

Aquatic Activities

Aquatic activities also pose additional risks to participants and staff. The following protocols should be followed for any aquatic activity:

  1. Develop an evacuation plan that brings pool patrons safely and orderly into shelter.
  2. Designate at least one safe area within your building.
    1. An interior pool deck or locker room should not be used as a safe area.
    2. Make sure the safe area is able to accommodate individuals who may be wet and might get chilled.
  3. When lightning is within ten miles, suspend all activity in the pool area and evacuate people to the established safe area(s). Guards should clear the entire pool area and lock the entrance. Frequent in-service trainings with lifeguards and staff as well as clear communication with the swimmers will help to achieve this goal.
  4. Resume activities only when safe.
    1. Assuming typical storm speeds (20 to 25 mph), you may resume activities in the pool 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder. Lifeguards must be sure to be in appropriate position for surveillance before activities resume. Continue to monitor for additional severe weather.

Water is an excellent conductor of electricity; the structure surrounding a pool, whether outdoor or indoor, may also be conductive. Many victims of lightning are not struck directly but are injured when electric currents transverses the ground or a structure. Swimming pools and their attendant structures are connected to vast conductive networks consisting of underground water pipes, gas lines, telephone and electric cables.

Electrical energy from a lightning strike in one location can be transmitted to any other position on this metallic network. Thus, if lightning strikes the ground near an indoor pool, it may enter the building through various low resistance conductors that come into contact with the building. It is even possible for adjacent wet ground or nearby tree roots to be sufficient conductors. Just because a pool was electrically grounded when initially built, does not mean that changes to plumbing, wiring or the structure itself have not compromised that protection. Even an indoor pool should never be presumed safe from the effects of lightning.