Last week was National Lightning Safety Awareness Week. I had no idea there was such a thing.
First, I'll confess to a moment of complete idiocy as regards the subject of lightning safety. As a Wilderness EMT I had been to numerous outdoor-safety courses, talks, and workshops over the years, and could not really say with a straight face that the realities of lightning were unknown to me. Likewise, my husband, a master electrician, as well as a hiker, had some grasp of the basic concepts here.
Roughly 20 years ago, as we relaxed in an outdoor swimming pool after a day on the trail in Arizona, we heard thunder.
"No big deal; that storm's got to be a long way off yet." Then we happened to touch the metal cover plate of the pool filter, and felt a distinct electrical buzz as the sky glowed in the distance. We looked at each other, feeling fairly sheepish as we got out of the pool. "Who's the smart one?"
At this month's meeting of the Knox County Emergency Management Directors, guests from the National Weather Service office in Gray included chief meteorologist Henricus Lulofs, Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Jensenius, a slightly fried-looking old mad-scientist named Doctor Lightning and, uh, Leon the Lightning Safety Lion.
We all grew up being taught some bit of wisdom about what to do if you get caught outside in a thunderstorm. We've all heard those nuggets of advice: stand this way, not that way, stand here, not there, or squat down on your heels and stay put. Just try doing that for the length of a whole thunderstorm! Now, the National Weather Service teaches that nowhere outdoors is reliably safe. You may as well walk, or run, toward shelter.
Obviously it makes sense to avoid being the tallest thing around, and to avoid touching the tallest thing around, or touching any electrical conductor, and it makes sense to realize that finishing that round of golf is just not that important. But in general, the advice now is to go indoors—into a real building, not just a tent or gazebo-- or get quickly into a metal vehicle. There is no evidence that anybody has ever died by being in a sturdy metal vehicle that was struck by lightning; the tires might be flattened, the antenna may be destroyed, but the people inside are reliably safe (and not because of the rubber tires! That's another common myth. It's the metal around you that keeps you safe. A "ragtop convertible" just isn't the same.) Worrying about in which position you hold your feet, as you are out standing in your field in a thunderstorm, is splitting statistical hairs; if you get struck by lightning or even are near to a lightning strike, it's going to hurt.
...to say the least!
If a building or a vehicle is not available--as it may not be for mariners or for outdoor sports enthusiasts-- there is no real "do this and you will be safe" advice. The National Weather Service asserts that if you are outside in a thunderstorm, you are not safe. Their best advice is to pay attention to the weather before you go out. There are so many sources of accurate, timely, locally specific weather information available now, there are darned few of us who can seriously claim that they had no way of knowing that a thunderstorm would be possible in their area on a given day.
The NWS reminds us that it does not have to be raining for the threat of lightning strike to be present; if you can hear thunder, there is a risk. By the way, what we have always called "heat lightning" is just a thunderstorm too far away for the sound of thunder to be audible. Metal does not actually attract lightning, but as an excellent conductor of electricity, metal items such as fences and wires should obviously be avoided. The same goes for water. If there is no way to get to a building or vehicle, stay low, but there is no particularly safe body position.
Speak up to your group. Don't hesitate to be the killjoy who breaks up the game. If you are the coach, be conservative, and keep the kids safe. Jensenius offered some advice for those who work and play outdoors:
"If you are on the water, get to shore as fast as you can. Make sure you are wearing a life jacket. People who are struck are often left unconscious and could end up in the water -- obviously a bad combination. The life jacket increases the chances for rescue or recovery.
If you are in the woods far from safety, stay off mountain tops and ridges and move to an area of shorter trees. If you are with a group, spread out throughout the area. Although this increases the chance that someone might get stuck, it decreases the chance for a multiple casualty event, and increases the chance that someone will be able to render first aid/CPR to a victim and/or go for help.
In cases where you'll be some distance from safety, it is especially important to find out if there are any potential weather threats expected. If there are, you should consider canceling, postponing, or altering those plans so you can get to safety if a thunderstorm develops. Once you are outside, you should keep an eye on the sky and watch for any signs of a developing or approaching storm. In addition, there are many sources of up-to-date radar and weather information available for computers and smart phones.
As a general rule, people don't like to be inconvenienced by the weather. This often leads them to rationalize why they should continue to do what they've been doing, despite the threat, rather than taking the appropriate actions to be safe."
There are a lot of misconceptions about lightning. A person who has been struck needs emergency help but there are still a few folks out there who worry that the victim is still carrying an electrical charge and is unsafe to touch. That doesn't happen; bystanders need to help right away! (By the way, as a CPR instructor, allow me to toss in this little plug for CPR: an otherwise healthy person whose heart has been stopped by electrocution is a good candidate for CPR!)
The NWS website tells us that an average of 49 people each year are killed by lightning in the U.S., and hundreds are injured. There have been six so far this year; five men and one woman—and that gender ratio is fairly typical! The new motto is, "When thunder ROARS, go indoors!" Even if you're a tough guy.
Okay, so--who's that in the lion suit? That would be me. I guess emergency management needs me.
Jensenius and Lulofs asked me about the people on Matinicus, and their awareness of hazardous weather, as I was climbing out of the lion suit. I described how, "Our island community is primarily commercial fishermen. As mariners, those guys are always paying attention to the weather. When I first moved out there a few decades back I remember asking my neighbor, 'What's the weather supposed to be?' He just replied, 'Well, it's supposed to come around sou'west.' That was all he said. From that I was expected to extrapolate the rest. You get so you understand what impact the wind direction has on the expected precipitation, fog, sea conditions, etc. We also depend upon small airplanes for mail, groceries, and emergency transport, so everybody on the island understands what 'ceiling' and 'crosswind' and 'visibility' mean. My kids grew up hearing, 'Shush, the weather's on!' at a quarter past six every evening. Nowadays, as you point out, there are loads of marine and aviation weather sources online, so we don't have to wait for the evening news, we don't have to shush the children. We look at the radar, and we basically pay attention to the far-offshore forecast, the one that used to say 'from 25 miles to the Hague Line.' The joke is that when we hear the TV weatherman tell the rest of Maine that, 'The storm is going safely out to sea,' we know we need to check the mooring, or bring in extra firewood, or whatever. We're going to get slammed."
For teachers, trip leaders, weather science geeks, and everybody else, there is a lot of user-friendly material to be found on the NWS website. There are also many terrific lightning photographs!
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus
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