Written by Tom Sylva, Head Athletic Trainer, Highlands Ranch High School
Growing up as a boy who was active in sports and playing in the outdoors, weather issues were simple to me. We stayed out and played as long as we could until our parents called us inside. I never really payed attention to the dangers that the environment can bring, such as lightning. I now live in Colorado and am always active outdoors whether I am hiking, riding mountain bikes, or simply walking my dogs. I have had some very close brushes with lightning that I would care not to experience again. Some situations are easily remedied by simply taking shelter inside your home or car. Other scenarios are more complicated like descending a 14er in a boulder field above treeline with lightning dropping around you. In any case however, we usually have many warning signs before the situation becomes an in-your-face scenario. If we pay attention to these warnings and act on them, we can often avoid the wrath that is to come.
Lightning is something we have no control over and once it happens there is no time for reaction. 23 people in the US were struck and killed in 2016 and 13 so far this year in 2017. Over the last 10 years, Colorado has accumulated the 3rd highest fatality rate in the nation. Living in Douglas County we are next to perhaps the most frequent lightning struck area in the state – the Palmer Divide.
According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, Education is the single most important means to achieve lightning safety. A lightning safety program should be implemented at every facility. The following steps are suggested:
1. A responsible person should be designated to monitor weather conditions. Local weather forecasts - from The Weather Channel, NOAA Weather Radio, or local TV stations - should be observed 24 hours prior to athletic events. An inexpensive portable weather radio is recommended for obtaining timely storm data. Here in DCSD our Certified Athletic Trainers have been designated as our point person for our schools athletic programs.
2. Suspension and resumption of athletic activities should be planned in advance. Understanding of SAFE lightning shelters is essential. SAFE evacuation sites include:
a. Fully enclosed metal vehicles with windows up.
b. Substantial buildings.
c. The low ground. Seek cover in clumps of bushes.
3. UNSAFE LIGHTNING SHELTER AREAS include all outdoor metal objects like flag poles, fences and gates, high mast light poles, metal bleachers, baseball dugouts, golf cars, machinery, etc. AVOID trees. AVOID water. AVOID open fields. AVOID the high ground.
4. Lightning's distance from you is easy to calculate: When you see a lightning strike, begin counting and stop when you hear the thunder. For every 5 seconds, that lightning strike is ONE mile away! Yes, it is much closer than most realize. Since lighting has been known to travel 5 miles in its pattern, we use a 6 mile safety zone. A good lightning safety motto is: "If you can see it (lightning) flee it; if you can hear it (thunder), clear it."
5. If you feel your hair standing on end, and/or hear "crackling noises" - you are in lightning's electric field. If caught outside during close-in lightning, immediately remove metal objects, place your feet together, duck your head, and crouch down low in baseball catcher's stance with hands on knees.
6. Wait a minimum of 30 minutes from the last observed lightning or thunder(within 6 miles) before resuming activities.
7. People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge and are safe to handle. Apply first aid immediately if you are qualified to do so. Get emergency help promptly.
Above all, respect nature and its power. Realize that there are natural forces out there that turn dangerous at a moment’s notice. Pay attention to what the weather is telling you by observing warning signs. By doing these things you will increase your chances of successful outdoor adventures.