By Robyn Gust, MS/ATC, Trinity Health Sports Medicine Manager
With the nice weather returning, everyone is excited to get outside and spring/ summer sports are geared up to start playing. We even welcome the spring rain to wash away the dirt left behind from winter and to kick start the spring bloom. It is important to remember, however, that along with those spring rains come thunderstorms, and an often underestimated danger for outdoor events in the form of lightning.
When it comes to lightning, the first tip of safety is to make sure to keep an eye on the sky. It is important to not only look for weather such as lightning, but you want to listen for it as well.
According to the National Weather Service, if you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. One of the most common ways people have used to determine if they were at an estimated “safe” distance from a thunderstorm growing up was to count the time they saw the flash of lightning to when the sound of thunder was heard, thinking that is how many miles away it is. The correct way to use the “Flash to Bang Method”, however, of estimating the distance is to count the seconds between the lightning flash to the thunder bang, then divide by five to get the distance in miles. Using this method, six miles is considered a danger zone and those within that range should have already taken shelter in a safe place.
Understanding what structures are a safe shelter is vital in ensuring your safety when waiting out a thunder storm. A safe shelter is considered a substantial-sized building that has electricity and/or plumbing. If you do not have a safe shelter as an option, seeking shelter in a vehicle with a hard top is the next best option. It is important that you do not seek shelter in a freestanding dugout, picnic shelter, tent or under a tree. You want to avoid high ground areas and water, such as lakes, rivers or ponds.
In the age of technology, there are also many resources that people can use in the form of mobile apps or even stand-alone lightning detectors, that can get you vital information. They can tell you how far away the storm may be, display the radar in your area and some even show the exact location lightning has struck. The National Weather Service is also a great resource to look for many different kinds of weather safety tips, including lightning safety.
So, once lightning is sighted and you have taken shelter, when is it safe to return to the great outdoors? The National Weather Service and The National Federation of State High School Associations recommend waiting 30 minutes from the time of the last lightning strike to returning to activities outdoors. But even after 30 minutes, it is important to still keep a close watch on the weather.