Summertime is around the corner for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it comes a heightened risk for thunderstorms. With thunderstorms comes lightning, which can be deadly if you’re caught outside.
According to the NOAA, over the last 10 years (2009-2018) the United States has averaged 27 annual lightning strike fatalities. Approximately 10% of those struck by lightning are killed. Over the course of our lifetimes (Est. 80 years), there is a 1 in 15,300 chance of getting struck by lightning.
In fairness, lightning injuries and fatalities have become much less common thanks to education on the dangers of lightning. As recently as the 1940s, hundreds died every year because people just simply did not know how dangerous thunderstorms were. These days, a few dozen do.
So how can you limit your risk of being struck by lightning? We’ve developed this list of tips to stay out of harm’s way. Even if you’re caught outside, there are some simple ways to protect yourself.
Safest Place to Be During a Lightning Storm
In simplest terms, the safest place to be during thunderstorms is inside. As part of its lightning education program, the National Weather Service coined the phrase “when thunder roars, go indoors.” This is the best advice to follow—having some type of structure between you and the storm is vital.
This can be a building or enclosed area, even your car is better than being stuck outside in a lightning storm. When lightning strikes, it hits the building first and is redirected around you to provide protection. In order to provide adequate protection, there cannot be any openings.
Any openings provide a path for the lightning bolt and its associated static discharge to make its way inside the structure. The static discharge can cause damage to electronic devices inside, and even affect things like pacemakers. While not necessarily life-threatening, the static discharge is unsettling to experience (the author himself was zapped by the static discharge of a nearby bolt thanks to an open window. No injuries, but it was a shock—pardon the pun).
Keep all windows and doors closed in the structure. If you cannot get to a fully enclosed spot, limit your exposure to areas open to the outside as much as possible.
Plan Ahead and Check the Forecast Before Heading Outside
Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is true in lightning safety, too. Don’t make plans or head outside without first checking the forecast from official sources like weather.gov. Thunderstorms are typically well predicted hours in advance, so you will be able to plan your activities around the weather and postpone them if necessary.
If the forecast is clear, and you do go ahead with your planned activity, it’s vital to obtain updated forecasts by carrying a NOAA weather radio or by periodically checking weather radar websites and apps. Especially if your proposed activity spans across several days or if you’ll be away from a sturdy shelter (such as camping, boating, hiking, etc.). A handheld or portable lightning detector can also be used to spot lightning from significant distances to your location and give you advanced notice of a potential lightning hazard.
What to Do in a Lightning Storm If You’re Caught Outside
If you’re caught outside with lightning nearby, seek shelter immediately. The tips below are meant to give you some guidance on when, where and for how long you should shelter until the storm passes.
- Don’t wait until it starts raining. A common mistake some make is to wait until the rain starts before heading inside. This can still be risky. At first sound of thunder, head to a safe spot—lightning can strike miles ahead of the actual storm and any rain.
- Find adequate shelter. As we’ve mentioned already, it’s imperative that you find shelter that will protect you from a direct strike. Almost any kind of structure will do, as long as you’re able to close all windows and doors and does not contain exposed metal. Even a car is a safe place to be as a last resort.
- Get out of the water. Water conducts electrical current, so you’ll want to get out of lakes, rivers, streams, and pools at the first sign of an approaching storm.
- Stay away from metal. Like water, metal is also a conductor, and you’ll want to be as far away from sources of metal as possible, especially metal objects like flagpoles that are taller than their surroundings.
- Find low ground. Lightning strikes the highest ground more often, so you’ll want to find a low point to seek shelter. If you cannot find shelter as we described above, head to the nearest low and unexposed location and avoid tall and isolated trees.
- Wait it out. Experts recommend you not only wait until the rain has stopped, but at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder to resume activities. Just like lightning can strike ahead of a storm, it can strike behind it, too.
What to Do in a Lightning Storm If You’re Indoors
Here’s what you need to do once inside to remain safe. Some of the lightning safety tips are common sense, but we’re willing to bet that you might not expect a few of them to be a danger, but they are, nonetheless.
- Don’t use landline phones. Electrical current can travel through these lines and electrocute you. Cordless and mobile phones are safe to use, however.
- Don’t touch anything connected to power. In the event of a strike, these objects may become electrified. It’s actually a better idea to unplug them beforehand altogether to prevent damage.
- Avoid contact with sources of running water. This means the use of sinks, showers, and even the toilet should be avoided until the storm passes. Don’t take a bath during a storm, either.
- Stay away from exterior windows and doors and keep them closed. Metal windows and doors are especially dangerous.
- Inside means inside. Standing on a balcony or underneath a carport isn’t enough. Don’t watch the storm from an open garage either.
- Concrete is dangerous too. You might not think this from its exterior, but concrete flooring is typically fortified by metal bars that are placed through it for stability. Don’t lie on a concrete floor or lean on a wall during a storm.
For more tips on lightning safety, watch this video produced by the National Weather Service in Missoula, Montana.
If Someone Is Struck by Lightning
Even after careful preparation, you or somebody you know may be struck by lightning. What do you do when this happens?
Call 911 immediately and get emergency medical help as quickly as possible. If more than one person is struck by lightning, treat those who are unconscious first. Be aware that it is safe to touch the person as the body does not retain any electrical charge from the strike.
If the person is unconscious and doesn’t appear to be breathing, use an automated external defibrillator (AED), if one is on hand, or start CPR.
If the person is conscious, monitor their well-being and address any other injuries. They will likely be in shock, so lay them down with their feet propped up. If the victim has burnt clothes, experts recommend that you do not remove them unless necessary.
Acting quickly to do the above will significantly increase chances of survival. Once emergency first responders arrive, let them handle the situation.
Have questions on lightning safety or a story of your own? Share it with us in the comments.