School is out and summer is finally here, which means more time outdoors with the family! Although popular outdoor summertime activities are wonderful family-bonding experiences, they also come with risks we need to be aware of. One of the biggest risks is lightning. We were at an outdoor concert last night, keeping an eye on the sky, because we knew there were storm systems moving into the area. Luckily, we didn't hear any thunder until the concert was over, so we were able to see the full concert and be safe. However, lightning safety is very important.
Did you know that most lightning victims are close to safe shelter but wait too long to get there? Nearly two-thirds of lightning fatalities happen when people are engaged in leisure activities like bicycling, hiking, camping, and fishing, common family activities for the summer months. Lightning injuries often leave victims with serious life-long disabilities, depression, job loss and family breakups. And here's another scary stat: 80% of lightning victims are male. Social science shows that women are influential in getting the men in their lives to make smart choices when it comes to health and safety. So be sure to share this info with the men in your family.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview John Jensenius. John is the NWS Lightning Safety Expert. He coordinates outreach and awareness activities with the public. John’s expertise won him the National Weather Association's Public Education Award in 2005. In 2006, he was awarded a Department of Commerce Silver Medal, the Department’s second highest honor.
1) When should someone take precautions against lightning?
Our simple saying, "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!" is a easy rule to remember. If you can hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm and need to get inside immediately. There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. How soon you start taking precautions depends on how quickly you are able to get inside. Ideally, it would be good for everyone to be inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before you hear thunder. If it takes more than a minute or two, you will want to keep a close eye on the sky for any signs of a developing storm, or if you have access to weather radar images, monitor the radar. Click here to see how people are struck
2) What should someone do if they are in a unique situation, for example hiking while camping (or when in the tent at a campsite)?
The best advice is to avoid situations where you can't get to a safe place on days when thunderstorms are possible. Unfortunately, there really isn't anything you can do to significantly reduce the chances of being struck if you are outside. However, there are things to avoid so that you don't increase the risk of being struck. Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in the immediate area. You don't want to be the tallest object, and you also don't want to be near the tallest object. Lightning tends to spread out along the ground surface when it strikes. Consequently, you don't want to lie down as that increases the risk of being struck by the ground current. To avoid these situations, we advise people to listen to the forecast, and if thunderstorms are possible to consider cancelling or postponing activities so that you are not caught outside. You may also want to plan your activities for times of the day when the thunderstorm risk is low.
3) How can women influence the men in their lives to be safe and not take chances?
That's a very good question! Typically, 80-85% of the lightning fatalities are male -- and most are involved in outdoor recreational activities. No matter what the age, education and awareness are critical in understanding the threat. The biggest problem is the "it won't happen to me" attitude. If nothing else, have them read through the details of all the lightning fatalities over the past five or six years and ask them how many of those deaths could have been them (based on their normal activities when thunderstorms are around). Then, have them review our pamphlet, "Lightning Safety For You and Your Family." Finally, don't allow them to endanger your life or the lives of others by putting you/them in a dangerous situation.
4) What's the best way to encourage lightning safety in young children without making them fear storms irrationally?
Make sure they're always in a safe place during a storm. Then let them know that they have nothing to fear because they are in a safe place. Then, it might be a good time to read them a book or play a board game. You could make "thunderstorms" a time for "special thunderstorm-safe activities." Just avoid the indoor hazards (see below).
5) What do people need to know about lightning safety when they're in their own homes?
Whenever a thunderstorm is in the area, avoid contact with anything that could conduct electricity inside of your home. That includes anything plugged into a wall outlet, plumbing, showers, sinks, tubs, and corded phones. Also, stay away from windows and doors. Finally, if your house is struck, be alert to the possibility of a fire and have the wiring inside your home checked by an electrician. If you wish to unplug sensitive electronic equipment, do so well before the storm arrives.