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Lightning Fatalities: Avoid Being One of These Numbers

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
April 13, 2013; 5:50 AM

Photo courtesy of -Qualsiasi

More people die or are injured by lightning in the summer months than any other time of the year. The increase in thunderstorm activity combined with more outdoor activities leads to a spike in lightning incidences, with an average of 54 people dying each year. In 2012 this number was below average, but still devastating for the families affected as28 people were killed by lightning. All occurred while taking place in some kind of outdoor activity: five from fishing, two from a soccer game, others from harvesting in fields, picking berries, outdoor picnics, a 12-year-old boy tragically struck while playing outside.

Nine people were injured and one killed on Aug. 5 at a NASCAR race in Long Pond, Pa., when lightning hit near one of the gates and in the parking lot. At 4:21 p.m. the raceway tweeted that a thunderstorm with lightning would be in the area in 10-15 minutes, but it wasn't until 4:50 p.m. that the race was called. It was when fans were exiting to their cars after the race was called that the injuries and fatality occurred.

Lightning is one of the least understood of weather phenomena, but we do know how to reduce the risk of death or injury from strikes. Half of the lightning fatalities last year occurred when people were standing underneath a tree, presumably for shelter from the rain, or mistakenly thinking that was the safest location from the storm. In actuality, it's one of the worst places you can be.

The safest place to be during a thunderstorm is inside a secure building with four walls and a roof. Picnic pavilions, car ports and tents are not secure locations.

"Outdoor shelters near athletic fields or golf courses are not safe unless grounded," warns AccuWeather.com chief meteorologist Elliot Abrams.

Even inside, you still need to take precautions.

According to Abrams, there are three ways lightning can enter a building: a direct strike to the structure, through wires and pipes and through the ground.

"Stay away from corded phones. Corded phone use is the leading cause of lightning injuries nationwide," he said. Other corded electronics, like televisions and appliances, can also cause injury. If you are using a corded device and the building gets struck, the charge can travel through the wires and strike you. Likewise, lightning can surge through plumbing, so you should hold off on taking a shower or washing dishes while a thunderstorm rages outside. Concrete basements that have been reinforced with bars and wires can also cause lightning to enter your home.

But what if you are outside, camping, running or fishing? What if you are at a sporting event for your kids, your friends, or a professional team? What do you do if you get caught outside in a storm?

Related: Road Trip Survival: Recognizing Which Clouds Mean Danger

The first line of defense to prevent being struck in an unexpected storm is to not let a storm be unexpected. You should always check the weather forecast before you engage in an outdoor activity or plan to spend a good deal of time outside. Coaches and game officials should always err on the side of caution and reschedule a game if there are good chances for a thunderstorm, unless there is a secure, grounded building right next to the field. Even then, at the very first sound of thunder the game should be put on hold and everyone should move inside or to their vehicles. The two men killed at a soccer game this year were hit when they took shelter underneath a tree.

The effects of a lightning strike on a tulip poplar tree in South Carolina. Photo courtesy of Martin LaBar

Fishing trips and weekend camping getaways should also be postponed if there is a strong chance for lightning, or else plans should be made to quickly escape from a storm. Never take a boat out onto water if a storm is coming. If you are on the water and thunder starts, immediately head to shore. A 51-year-old man was killed last June while fishing in his boat on a lake.

When camping, set up your site near your vehicle so you can ride out the storm inside. After buildings, cars with metal roofs and the windows rolled up are the next safest place to be. Contrary to popular myth, cars are not safe because of the rubber tires. Instead, it's the metal frame of the car. The current travels along the outside of its conductors, which in this case is the frame. The charge follows a path on the frame down to the ground.

You should also invest in a weather radio if you plan to spend an extended length of time outside. Having a weather radio with you when you are out camping and cut off from other communications can allow you to hear the warnings of an approaching storm and return to your vehicle. If you are outside for any activity and are aware ahead of time that a storm is likely, you should monitor the progress of it so you can heed any warnings issued for your area.

Related: Important Tips for Summer Camping

Sometimes even the best planning can still leave you stuck in a dangerous situation. If that happens, there are ways to minimize your risks.

The first thing you should do is get away from anything that can easily draw a lightning strike. Trees, poles, anything that stands tall and is a good conductor of electricity can be struck. Even using an umbrella can give you a measurable increased risk. If you are near a tall object that gets hit, when the charge moves into the ground you could end up shocked, injured or killed. If you are in a wooded area, avoid the tallest trees as they are the ones most likely to be struck.

Once you find an area spaced away from tall objects, you should crouch down. The lower you are to the ground, the less likely you are to be hit. However, you want to stay on the balls of your feet and not lie down. You need to cover as little ground as possible to avoid the ground current if something nearby is struck. Even keeping your hands off the surface below you can help decrease your risks.

The Earth acts as an insulator to electricity and allows it to travel across the surface once hit. The ground current is strongest at the point of the strike, then gradually gets weaker as the current moves away from the source. This ground current can cause fatalities, not just direct strikes.

If you are at a large outdoor sporting event, like at a football or baseball stadium, you should move inside or underneath the stadium if a storm rolls though. The game should be called if thunder starts, but if it's not you should still leave your seat and go somewhere more secure.

Lightning strikes over a crowd at Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece. Photo courtesy of spapax

Most lightning fatalities occur at the onset of a storm before people are aware of the hazard. This is why it's crucial for people to cautious and take shelter immediately when a storm starts to move through. A general rule of thumb for calculating how far away lightning is striking is to count out how long between the sight of lightning and the sound of thunder. Counting in terms of one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, then multiplying the number by 1,000 tells you roughly how many feet away the storm is. If you get to six one-thousand when you're counting, the strike is approximately 6,000 feet away.

However, lightning can strike miles away from the storm. Lightning that forms at the top of an anvil cloud, called positive lightning, as it is formed in the part of the storm that is positively charged, can have ten times more energy than the negative lightning that forms lower in the clouds. It can also reach greater distances.

For this reason, lifeguards have a rule to not allow anyone back in the water for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder or flash of lightning. If you are out at the beach or pool and the lifeguard has called for everyone to leave the water, you should immediately heed the warning and find secure shelter. Do not enter the water again until you have been instructed it is safe. The precautions are there to save the lives of you and everyone around you. If you are out by water and there is no lifeguard on duty, take your safety into your own hands and leave the area and do not return for the 30 minutes.

Golf courses, too, have warning systems in place to warn golfers of lightning risks. If you hear the warning system while you are out you should immediately pack up your things and go inside. Don't try to finish the game, don't even try to make it through the hole you are on. On average, five percent of lightning fatalities occur on golf courses.

Family picnics and backyard barbecues should have an indoor backup plan in case of a storm. A tent may protect your food from rain if a storm moves in, but it won't protect your friends and family from a lightning strike. A 68-year-old Kansas man was killed in the front yard at a family gathering in early July this year.

While death is certainly the worst-case scenario when it comes to lightning strikes, the injuries can also be devastating. Severe burns, depression and chronic pains or illnesses are all possible results of lightning strikes. If someone has been struck by lightning you should immediately call for emergency assistance. If the storm is still raging on, use extreme caution when trying to help the victim. If they are outside and you are in a secure location, call to them to come inside if they are conscious. If you need to go to them to administer first aid, first try to move them to a safer area instead of trying to administer help in the open. It won't do either of you any good to have you both struck.

One myth of lightning is that a person who has been struck remains electrically charged and can shock someone else if they make contact. This is incorrect. A person is only an electrical danger to others while they are being struck. Once the current has passed through them they are no longer a shock risk to you. While waiting for emergency medical help, check for a heartbeat and for breathing. If necessary, administer CPR.

Spending times outdoors is a great way to make the most of your summer. By being aware of the dangers of lightning, being cautious, and reacting well you can ensure that your time outside makes for positive memories and not disaster.

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