Lightning Safety

Lightning Safety
Posted on 09/17/2020
Lightning Safety

Ian Feiler BS, LAT, ATC
Assistant Athletic Trainer, Castle View High School


You may find yourself spending more time outside these days, especially with the strong likelihood that your gym of choice is still closed, or the possibility that you are attempting to social distance while still getting in a run or a workout. Continuing to be active is a great benefit to your mental and physical health, and getting a little sun after work or school can help increase your vitamin D levels. However, one thing you may not have thought of is the potential danger lurking in those dark clouds we commonly see in the afternoons here in Colorado. It may surprise you to know that the Front Range of Colorado is one of the top five places in the country for lightning activity. With this in mind, it is important to take caution when you are outside, and you see dark clouds in the distance, especially between now and early fall, when lightning strikes are at their highest points of occurrence. Being prepared and knowledgeable about lightning safety is the best defense against lightning-related injuries.

While lightning safety precautions are not a new or groundbreaking topic, it is important information to learn or review. It is good practice to think of the weather when venturing outdoors this time of year, and being aware of the potential for lightning occurrence is a good habit to establish. There are a multitude of ways you can find out if lightning producing clouds are in your area. There are a number of mobile weather apps that include information about lightning activity. The WeatherBug Spark App, Storm by Weather Underground, and the National Weather Service app are all good choices. The app I personally use to find out about current lightning conditions is the WeatherBug app. This free app will provide a multitude of relevant information, including temperature, pollen level, air quality, and of course, lighting danger. You can choose to use your specific location by turning on your device’s location setting or simply choose your city. The app can tell you the most recent and closest lightning strikes to your current location.

WeatherBug will create a circular lightning map with all of the recorded strikes in a nearby radius with your location in the center. You can also choose to allow the app to send you notifications on certain environmental conditions like lightning and air quality. I have gotten in the habit of checking WeatherBug as the school day comes to a close, and sports practices are beginning. Knowing if there is lightning in the area and how far away it is can prevent being surprised by an unexpected storm. As we all know, proper planning prevents poor (lightning safety) performance.

So, you are now aware that there is lightning in the area, but it is relatively far away. How close is too close when it comes to lightning? According to the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA), if there are lightning strikes within six miles, you are in the danger zone. To avoid being surprised when lightning is this close, it is best to begin thinking about discontinuing activity when lightning is about 10 miles away. When lightning is within 15 miles, you should start to become cautious of any approaching storm clouds. As mentioned before, being prepared is the best way to stay safe when lightning is close.

Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) recommends clearing the fields or discontinuing activity when lightning is within eight miles, and this guideline is what all athletic trainers in Douglas County follow. So, don’t be surprised if athletic competition or practice is temporarily postponed if your WeatherBug app says lightning is only eight miles away. It is better to be overly cautious in situations where lightning is close by.

Now that guidelines regarding lightning proximity have been established, what should you do in the event that lightning is less than 10 miles away? Taking shelter in an appropriate place is the best way to protect yourself from lightning. Appropriate shelters are buildings with plumbing and/or electrical wiring or a car with a solid roof. Convertible automobiles and shelters without walls or plumbing/electrical are not safe shelters from lightning. This includes gazebos, tents, dugouts, and storage sheds. You should shelter from lightning for at least 30 minutes and continue to stay sheltered until 30 minutes have passed without a lightning strike within 10 miles. If a lightning strike occurs while sheltering, an additional 30 minutes of time without a new strike should pass until you can stop sheltering.

As you can see by the sheltering guidelines, it is best just to avoid getting in this situation altogether, although this is understandably not always possible. Should you find yourself in a situation where you must seek shelter from lightning, just remember “Half an Hour Since Thunder Roars, Now It’s Safe to Go Outdoors!” Also, remember to keep an eye towards the sky, and if you see dark clouds looming, check your preferred weather monitoring app and make yourself aware of the current lightning conditions. Plan accordingly, and you will be prepared to protect yourself and others from the dangers of lightning.

References:

Walsh, K. M., Cooper, M. A., Holle, R., Rakov, V. A., Roeder, W. P., & Ryan, M. (2013). National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Lightning Safety for Athletics and Recreation. Journal of Athletic Training, 48(2), 258–270. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-48.2.25
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