Safety and survival in electrical storms (lightning)


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    Safety and survival in electrical storms (lightning)

    Last Link Check: 23 May 2006

    We invite expert opinion relevant to environments different from those described in an effort to reduce injury and death from lightning strikes worldwide

    GO TO:

  • Lightning Safety Group Recommendations
  • NOAA Lighting Safety Facts (also Spanish Version)
    see Overview including Outdoors Safety-Indoors Safety-Myths-Science-Medical-Teacher Tools-Survivor Stories-Success Stories-Photos-Lightning Safety Week
  • NOAA Questions and Answers About Lightning
  • 45th Weather Squadron - lightning safety web site (site down when last checked) Safety presentation download, letter to schools, great photos Needs 128-bit version of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) (site down when last checked)
  • National Lightning Safety Institute Very good bibliography.

    If for some reason you cannot reach the above sites, the material below is a condensation and may save a life

    Basic Recommendations

    No Place Outside is Safe Near Thunderstorms.
  • Know the weather and have an escape plan. Know how long it will take you to reach safety and watch the sky.
  • Use 30-30 RULE to estimate distance of storm. Actually, don't even bother to count the first 30 - when you see lighting or hear thunder, you should be making your way to safety or deciding if it is time to implement your safety plan.

    Generally speaking, if you see lightning and/or hear thunder, you are already at risk. Louder or more frequent thunder and lightning activity, means the risk for lightning injury or death is increasing. Lightning can strike within a 10 mile radius even if no rain, sun shining, etc. (some report up to 15 miles) High winds, rainfall, and cloud cover often act as precursors to actual cloud-to-ground strikes but not necessarily

    Very Important - Many lightning casualties occur in the beginning as the storm approaches, or within 30 minutes after the storm has passed.

    Do not wait. Head for safety:

  • Get inside a large enclosed structure. NOT a carport, open garage, or even a covered patio which provide no protection, and NOT by an open window.

  • If a large enclosed structure is not available, get inside a fully enclosed metal vehicle with metal top and with windows rolled up.

  • Do not touch anything in contact with the outside shell of vehicle or building such as metal door or window frames, or the electrical wiring of the car or building, cable TV wiring, plumbing, household electrical appliances which includes desktop computer, cord telephone (cell phones pose no risk)

  • Do not use running water such as shower, washing hands, doing dishes.

    If caught outside
    This is as a last resort - you should have had a plan, been aware of the weather, etc. prior to this and moved to a more protected area.

  • Avoid OPEN AREAS such as fields, construction sites, recreation areas
  • Avoid WATER such as ocean, lakes, swimming pools, rivers
  • Avoid TREES
  • Avoid SMALL OPEN STRUCTURES such as bus stops, rain shelters, picnic shelters, dugouts, gazebos
  • Avoid TALL STRUCTURES such as communications towers, flag or light poles
  • Avoid BLEACHERS (metal or wood)
  • Avoid METAL FENCES OR METAL OBJECTS such as carts, agricultural or construction equipment, golf carts, telephone lines or power lines, pipelines, or steel fabrications
  • Avoid HOLDING METAL OBJECTS such as fishing rods, golf clubs, ski poles, tennis rackets, tools

    Do not go under single or a small clump of trees or under a tree which sticks out above the rest to get out of the rain. Many have been killed or seriously injured because they did. And get out of the water and off the beach. And if you are in a small boat, get to shore
    Read Lightning Safety Outdoors
    Read Boating-Lightning Protection

  • Spread out and have at least 10-15 feet (3-4.5m) between people to avoid side flashes from person to person. To repeat from above, lightning current can also branch off or conduct current through or on top of the ground to a person from a tree, fence, pole, or other tall object, or through pipes to a person in contact with an electric appliance, telephone, or plumbing fixture. For full discussion of lightning and its effects, see

  • Use the lightning crouch. If you unavoidably find yourself in open space and a lightning strike is highly possible (sometimes but rarely, before a lightning strike, there is a warning - your hair will stand-up on end, or your skin will tingle, or light metal objects will vibrate, or you'll hear a crackling or "kee-kee" sound).

    Lightning Crouch
    - put your feet together
    - squat down
    - tuck your head
    - and cover your ears
    DO NOT LIE DOWN (very dangerous)

  • All adults are responsible for children. Group activity or outing organizers should have a prior safety plan, and either provide safe places (cars, buses, substantial shelters) or know where to go for safety, and be updated on storm warnings (the following are not safe places: bleachers, outdoor stadiums, dugouts, etc.).

  • If someone is struck, it is entirely safe to touch the individual. They do not carry a charge. However, be aware that lightning may strike again so keep low in pulling them to a safer place.

  • If victim not breathing, give CPR and mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation. All deaths from lightning are cardiac arrest and stopped breathing. For CPR instructions, go to cpr.html

    If rescuer at risk from another strike, give a few quick breaths prior to moving them to a safer area. Victim can usually be moved since broken bones are not likely unless the person has fallen from a height or been thrown.

    In situations that are cold and wet, putting a protective layer between the victim and the ground may decrease the hypothermia that the victim suffers which can further complicate the resuscitation.

    In wilderness areas and those far from medical care, prolonged basic CPR is of little use: The victim is unlikely to recover if they do not respond relatively quickly. If the person does not respond after twenty to thirty minutes of good effort, the rescuer should not feel guilty about stopping resuscitation. [Lightning Safety Group]

    NO LIGHTNING SAFETY GUIDELINES will give 100% guaranteed total safety, but these steps and those authoritative guideline outlined in more detail below will help you avoid the vast majority of lightning casualties.


    Lightning is the #2 storm killer in the U.S., killing more than hurricanes or tornadoes. Only floods kill more. According to a National Weather Service publication, the annual average is 73 lightning fatalities. Due to underreporting, the figures are more realistically about 100 deaths per year. But the real story of lightning isn't the deaths, it's the injuries. Only about 10% of those struck are killed; 90% survive. But of the survivors, many suffer life-long severe injury. These injuries are primarily neurological, with a wide range of symptoms and are difficult to diagnose and treat. NOAA Lightning Safety

    Cloud-to-ground lightning can kill or injure people by direct or indirect means. The lightning current can branch off to a person from a tree, fence, pole, or other tall object... In addition, flashes may conduct their current through the ground to a person after the flash strikes a nearby tree, antenna, or other tall object. The current also may travel through power or telephone lines, or plumbing pipes to a person who is in contact with an electric appliance, telephone, or plumbing fixture. For facts, statistics, and effects, see Questions and Answers About Lightning

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    Expanded Description - Excerpts

    The seemingly random nature of thunderstorms cannot guarantee the individual or group absolute protection from lightning strikes. However, being aware of, and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death. The individual is ultimately responsible for his/her personal safety and has the right to take appropriate action when threatened by lightning. Adults must take responsibility for the safety of children in their care during thunderstorm activity.
    [Lightning Safety Group]

    Who Gets Injured - While about one third of all injuries occur during work, workers compensation companies are often reluctant to acknowledge the injury or pay their medical expenses. About another third of injuries occur during recreational or sports activities. The last third occur in diverse situation, including injuries to those inside buildings.

    30-30 Rule - When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If this time is 30 seconds or less, seek proper shelter. If you can't see the lightning, just hearing thunder is a good back-up rule. Be aware that this method of determining distance has severe limitations in part due to the difficulty of associating the proper thunder to the corresponding flash. Wait 30 minutes or more after hearing the last thunder before leaving shelter.
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    Factors Leading to Incorrect Decisions and Possible Injury
    1 Belief in myths about lightning and its effects and what to do.
    2 Improper education about lightning risks and safety measures.
    3 Lack of planning by coaches, parents, referees at sporting events, and activity or outing organizers as to possible shelter to take during a thunder storm. Adults should be aware that they are ALWAYS responsible for the children in their care, particularly if it is an outdoor activity such as soccer, football, camping, etc.
    4 Incorrect estimate of the danger of a possible lightning strike.

    Considerations for Small Groups and/or when the Evacuation Time is less than Ten minutes

  • Adults must take responsibility for the safety of children in their care.
  • Have an action plan of what to do in case of storm
  • Monitor local weather forecasts, NOAA weather radio, or the Weather Channel prior to outdoor events. Continue monitoring forecasted weather and on site developments.
  • Lightning detection systems may help to enhance warning during the initial stages of the storm and for "All Clear" determination.
  • For larger groups, time needed to properly evacuate an area increases.
  • Remember, lightning is always generated and connected to a thundercloud but may strike many miles from the edge of the thunderstorm cell.
  • Safer sites must be identified beforehand, along with a means to route the people to those locations. School buses are an excellent lightning shelter that can be provided (strategically placed around various locations) by organizers of outdoor events with larger groups of people and larger areas such as golf tournaments, summer day camps, swim meets, military training, scout groups, etc.
  • The "All Clear" signal must be identified and should be considerably different than the "Warning" signal Lightning Safety Group Recommendations See also for large group guidelines and overall treatment of subject.

    Death or Injury Due to Lightning Strike
    "Affects on the Family
    While any death is a blow to a family, eventually the family readjusts and goes on. However, for those who have a relative who suffers significant disability from lightning, life changes forever and the dreams of that family and the survivor may be markedly altered. The family income may be tremendously decreased if the survivor was one of the breadwinners, or the spouse or another family member may have to quit work to care for the survivor if the disability is great enough.

    How Does Lightning Injury Affect People?
    Lightning tends to be a nervous system injury and may affect any or all parts of the nervous system: the brain, the autonomic nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system. When the brain is affected, the person often has difficulty with short-term memory, coding new information and accessing old information, multitasking, distractibility, irritability and personality change. A great quote sums it up perfectly: "Patients have difficulty in all areas that require them to analyze more items of information than they can handle simultaneously. They present (appear) as slow because it takes longer for smaller than normal chunks of information to be processed. They present as distractible because they do not have the spare capacity to monitor irrelevant stimuli at the same time as they are attending to the relevant stimulus. They present as forgetful because while they are concentrating on point A, they do not have the processing space to think about point B simultaneously. They present as inattentive because when the amount of information that they are given exceeds their capacities, they cannot take it all in." Early on, survivors may complain of intense headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other post-concussion types of symptoms. Survivors may also experience difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively after the injury but changing during the next few weeks to inability to sleep more than two or three hours at a time. A few may develop persistent seizure-like activity several weeks to months after the injury.

    Personality Changes / Self-Isolation
    Many may suffer personality changes because of frontal lobe damage and become quite irritable and easy to anger. The person who wakes up after the injury often does not have the ability to express what is wrong with them, may not recognize much of it or deny it, becomes embarrassed when they cannot carry on a conversation, work at their previous job, or do the same activities that they used to handle. As a result, many self-isolate, withdrawing from church, friends, family and other activities. Friends, family and co-workers who see the same external person, may not understand why the survivor is so different. Friends soon stop coming by or asking them to participate in activities. Families who are not committed to each other break up. Obviously, depression becomes a big problem for people who have changed so much and lost so much. Suicide is something that almost all severely injured people have thought about at one time or another. Occasionally, those who do not have access to medical care or who do not understand what is happening may self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs, particularly those who have previously sought solace with these compounds. It is very important that the family and friends of the survivor maintain supportive contact even though it requires an adjustment n their relationship with the survivor. An injury such as this is an injury to the family, not just to the person hit.

    Survivors often complain of easy fatigability, becoming exhausted after only a few hours of work. This may be because every task that they used to automatically do without thinking now requires intense concentration to accomplish. Many return to work but find that they cannot multitask and do all of the activities that are required at their job.

    Delayed Problems
    Another common, but often delayed, problem for some survivors is pain, also a difficult problem to quantify and manage. The pain may not be from chronic intense headaches but may be in the back (perhaps from compression and disc injury from the intense muscle contractions which may throw a person several yards at the time of the injury), or in an extremity. Some may have nerve entrapment syndromes and a small number may eventually develop Sympathetically Mediated Pain Syndrome. Sometimes the Right Rest is not Available.

    Sometimes the functional tests that are ordered are testing the wrong thing. An electromyogram (EMG) measures only the largest nerve fibers, the motor fibers, which are seldom affected by lightning injury. Smaller pain carrying nerve fibers are not tested by EMG so that a normal EMG means little when ordered for someone with pain. Likewise, the standard EEG measures primarily surface readings of the brain and misses seizure activity in several deeper regions.

    Decreased libido and impotence are often reported."
    NOAA Lightning Safety - Medical Aspects of Lightning

    Support Group
    Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors, International, Support Group - An organization that has been of tremendous help to survivors, their families, their physicians and other professionals is Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors, International (LSESSI), a support group formed in 1989 by a gentleman who was injured in 1969 who became tired of no one recognizing or knowing what to do for those with lightning injury. LSESSI has printed materials, offers tremendous support, networks survivors with others in their area, and provides an annual meeting where survivors come together for support as well as for lectures from professionals who work with lightning and electrical survivors and their families. LSESSI can be reached at 910-346-4708,,, or at P.O. Box 1156, Jacksonville, North Carolina 28541-1156.
    also see

    Mary Ann Cooper, MD, Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Illinois @ Chicago
    For medical procedures related to electrical and lightning injuries see:
    Cooper, Mary Ann MD, Emergent Care of Lightning and Electrical Injuries, Seminars in Neurology, Vol 15:3 Sept 95
    Lightning Injury Research Program "Our GOALS in preparing this website are to provide:

  • An informational and educational tool for survivors of lightning strike and the physicians who treat them.
  • A safety resource for those responsible for organizing outdoor activities including parents, coaches, teachers, camp counselors, park managers, and others engaged in outdoor activities.
  • An educational resource for students, teachers, and the media."

    References some of the links above are repeated along with new links

    National Lightning Safety Institute - very wide range of topics, videos for everyone, plus hazard mitigation plans, systems, standards for buildings/sites

    NOAA Lightning Safety - Lightning Kills, Play it Safe - new public awareness campaign

    Boating-Lightning Protection
    William J. Becker (University of Florida)
    Excellent on Boats and Lightning danger and protection anywhere in world

    NOAA Lightning Safety Outdoors

    Lightning Injury Facts -Myths, Miracles, and Mirages (Facts and the truth about many lightning "facts" and myths)

    Lightning Safety Group Recommendations

    NOAA Lightning Safety Facts Spanish source
    NOAA Lightning Safety Outdoors source
    Safe Shelters & Indoor Safety source

    NOAA Questions and Answers About Lightning

    NOAA Lightning Safety - Medical Aspects of Lightning (facts and survivor's stories)

    General information on lightning and safety measures

    For other links to information about lightning (lightning research, statistics, survivor groups, camping primer, lightning detection, clinics, weather & climate instruction)

    Credits: For help in preparing this page and for providing many of the excerpts above, we wish to thank Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Illinois

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