Late spring and summer are perfect months for baseball, swimming, hiking and other outdoor activities associated with summer weather. These warmer months also give rise to ideal atmospheric conditions that generate thunderstorms. As spring and summer sports seasons get underway, it is important to review the lightning safety policies and procedures that protect athletes and spectators.
While the National Weather Service estimates that a person living in the United States has only a 1:10,000 risk of being struck by lightning by the time he or she reaches 80 years of age, lightning consistently ranks as one of the top three causes of storm-related deaths. On average, 30 people are killed by lightning annually, with hundreds more injured, some with permanent neurological injuries. In order to reduce the risk of lightning-related casualties, it is important to ensure that athletes, coaches and event administrators are appropriately educated regarding best practices for lightning safety.
A typical lightning strike may be anywhere from 20 million to 1 billion volts with an approximate temperature of 8,000°C. Lightning deaths and injuries from direct lightning strikes are rare, and injuries are most commonly the result of the current radiating out from the ground strike. While nearly 90 percent of cloud-toground strikes occur within the region of falling rain, most of the remaining 10 percent of strikes occur up to 10 miles from rainy areas. Though very rare, lightning is capable of striking even greater distances from the main thunderstorm.
Given the variation in distance that lightning may travel and the deadly force with which it strikes, the importance of keeping athletes and spectators safe through education and appropriate event planning cannot be understated. Postponing contests or practices should be strongly considered when a thunderstorm is predicted. In the event of an unexpected or fast-moving thunderstorm, appropriate steps should be taken to remove participants from the threat of lightning.
A person well-versed in the details of the school’s severe weather policy should be designated to monitor weather conditions and make the decision regarding suspending activity. This person should have unchallengeable authority to suspend the activity. When thunder is heard or lightning is reported within six miles of the outdoor event, everyone should be in a designated safe area. Importantly, all activities in indoor swimming pools must be considered “outdoor events” when developing a lightning policy.
Consideration for the size of the event and the number of people who will have to be evacuated should be given when making the decision to suspend activity, erring on initiating evacuation sooner when larger crowds are in attendance or when a longer time is needed to get to a safe place. Activities should not be resumed until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder or lightning flash.
Dependable and working communication with all in attendance must be maintained during an event to allow for timely notification of potential weather-related danger, instructions for prompt evacuation to designated safe areas and safe resumption of activities. Safety information regarding designated safe locations and evacuation protocols should be made readily available for everyone in attendance. This may include signage, information in programs or brochures or appointed ushers to help direct exiting crowds. Posters like the one pictured below are available through the National Weather Service.
A safe lightning shelter is often not a place otherwise considered a “shelter.” Picnic, park, sun and bus shelters as well as storage sheds are not safe locations. Other locations with open areas including tents, dugouts, gazebos, refreshment stands, screened porches, press boxes and open garages are not safe shelters. Tall objects, such as trees or poles, elevated areas, and bodies of water must also be avoided. Once inside a safe place, people should stay away from plumbing, electrical equipment and corded phones.
If an appropriate safe place is not available, a hard-top vehicle with the windows closed and buses are safer than open areas. If no safe place can be found, people should seek out the next best option. While there is no absolutely safe place outdoors when lightning is in the area, the risk of being struck may be slightly lessened by seeking out low areas such as valleys, which are slightly less dangerous than higher elevations. In a large group of trees, spreading out with 50 feet or more between individuals will reduce the likelihood of multiple casualties caused by a single lightning strike.
If someone is struck by lightning, the individual needs immediate medical attention. Call 911 to activate emergency services. Initiation of CPR or use of an AED may be necessary. After assessing the safety of the scene, move the victim to a safe place and monitor the individual’s condition until help arrives.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has published guidelines for creating high school lightning safety policies (see page 48). These recommendations are similar to those made by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).
While there are several weather-monitoring apps and devices available for use, the use of these programs should not over-ride guidelines to seek a safe place when thunder is heard or lightning is seen. Phone apps, in particular, may lack accuracy as to the location of each strike and may also have a delay of several minutes from when the strike occurs until it is displayed. They also should not be substituted for the 30-minute guideline designating when it is safe to resume activities after lightning has last been detected.
While rare, deaths and injuries from lightning strikes are preventable. The risk of lightning-related injuries and casualties can be lessened through developing a lightning safety plan and educating those managing or participating in outdoor events. Appreciating the danger lightning poses and encouraging safe and responsible behavior can help ensure that everyone continues to safely enjoy recreation and sports outdoors.
Abby Mettler, M.Ed, ATC is an athletic trainer with Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Verle Valentine, M.D., FACSM is a sports medicine physician in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and works primarily at Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. He is co-medical director for the Sanford Sports Science Institute and is an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota. He also is a current member of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.