Lightning Safety Guidelines

Lightning has been the second largest storm killer in the United States since 1959.

1. Unfortunately, meteorological agencies in the United States and around the world, which issue warnings and forecasts with the goal of decreasing casualties and property damage from severe weather, issue warnings for only 3 of the 4 important causes of storm-related fatalities: tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, but not for lightning.
Because lightning flashes strike the ground an average of approximately 25,000,000 times per year in the United States, it is impractical to expect the National Weather Service to warn every individual of every flash.

2. Depending on where a person lives or recreates, lightning can be considered the most dangerous weather hazard that many will encounter each year.

3. Avoidance of lightning injury usually becomes an individual responsibility, wherein each person must be familiar with and follow lightning safety rules.

Safer Locations And Locations To Avoid During Thunderstorms

Although no place is absolutely safe from the lightning threat, some places tend to be safer than others. Large enclosed structures, such as those with plumbing and electrical wiring, tend to be much safer than small or open structures. Fully enclosed metal vehicles with the windows rolled up provide good shelter from lightning. Some professional golf tournaments place school buses around the course for the evacuation of spectators.

Injuries can occur indoors or in vehicles when a person comes in contact with conducting materials. During a thunderstorm, individuals should avoid touching plumbing fixtures, electrical appliances, and metal frames. Computers should be unplugged before a thunderstorm to avoid damage to the computer and to the person using them. Generic surge suppressors will protect neither people nor equipment from lightning damage.

Areas to avoid include those near tall objects, such as towers or trees, and those near water or open areas.

Safety Guidelines For Individuals

Generally speaking, if an individual can see lightning or hear thunder, he or she is already at risk. Louder or more frequent thunder indicates that lightning activity is
approaching, thus increasing the risk for lightning injury or death.
The “30–30 Rule” is easy to remember and applies to the warning time before the storm and the time that should be waited before resumption of activities. If the time delay between seeing the flash (lightning) and hearing the bang (thunder) is less than 30 seconds, the individual should be in or should be seeking a safer location.

Locations To Seek Or Avoid During Thunderstorms:

Seek Safer Areas:

Large structures with plumbing and electrical wiring (eg, houses, schools, office buildings). Fully enclosed metal vehicles (eg, cars, trucks, buses, enclosed farm vehicles).
Important: Roll up windows and avoid contact with metal or conducting surfaces outside or inside the vehicle.


  • Tall structures (eg, mountains, isolated trees, towers, flag poles, light poles).
  • Open fields (eg, golf courses, sports fields, parks, school yards, playgrounds).
  • Open structures or open vehicles (eg, gazebos; rain, sun, golf, or picnic shelters; baseball dugouts; convertibles; golf carts).
  • Contact with conductive materials (hard-wired telephones, computers, plumbing, electrical appliances or wiring, bleachers, fences, metal window or door frames).
  • Being near or in water (eg, oceans, beaches, lakes, rivers, indoor or outdoor pools).

Although high winds, rainfall, and cloud cover often act as precursors to actual cloud-to-ground strikes, many lightning casualties occur before the storm arrives because people ignore these warnings and wait for rain to fall. When thunderstorms are in the area but not overhead, the lightning threat can exist even though the sun is shining, it is not raining, and some of the sky is blue. Lightning may travel more than 10 miles in front of or behind a storm. A flash hits the ground in more than one location nearly 50% of the time and 10% of the time hits when there is no rain in the immediate area and blue sky can be seen. Other lightning injuries occur after the perceived threat has passed.

Generally, the lightning threat diminishes with time after the last sound of thunder or sighting of lightning, but may persist for up to 30 minutes. Weather warning devices, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio and/or credible lightning detection systems, help warn of lightning danger, but the individual should not let the lack of warning by these systems override common sense and the warning provided by his or her own eyes and ears.

Components Of A Lightning Action Plan

Lightning safety plans need to be in place and communicated to people before the storm season begins so that all persons at risk from the lightning threat can take appropriate action . For larger events or for events occurring in more open areas, a team of people may be needed to coordinate the evacuation plan. Monitoring the weather for the threat of lighting from thunderstorms may need to begin hours or days ahead of the event. Persons designated as spotters should be trained in lightning detection, including personal observation and the use and interpretation of reliable lightning detection system information, and should be intimately familiar with the Lightning Action Plan, including the “warning” signal and when it is to be used, the evacuation plan, designated safer areas, and use of the “all clear” signal.

The “all clear” signal should recognizably different than the “warning” signal. Regular drills of the Lightning Action Plan should be held. The drill schedule might include the beginning of the storm season, when severe weather is predicted, when new personnel are hired, and perhaps when there has been no thunderstorm activity or warnings for long periods of time. The Lightning Action Plan should be periodically reviewed by all personnel and modified when
necessary. Safer sites should be identified beforehand, along with a means to route people to those locations. Strategically placed school buses are an excellent lightning
shelter, particularly when large groups of people and large areas, such as golf tournaments, summer day camps, swim meets, military training, or scout groups, are involved.

It may be prudent to consider placing lightning safety tips and/or the action and evacuation plans in publications such as game programs, flyers, and score cards, as well as placing lightning safety placards around the area. This information should clearly describe the sounds that will be used for a lightning “warning” signal and for the “all clear” signal, as well as where safer areas are located.
Prominently posted signage warning that structures such as golf, rain, or bus shelters are not safe from lightning should be considered so that individuals, even during good weather, may become used to the idea of where safer locations are and how long it may take to reach them. Lightning signage may be an effective means of communicating the lightning threat to the general public and raising awareness.

Medical Recommendations For Lightning Victims

Most lightning victims survive their encounter with lightning, especially with timely medical treatment. Individuals struck by lightning do not carry a charge, and it is safe to touch them to render medical treatment. The proximate cause of death is cardiac arrest at the time of the strike. Anyone who has signs of life is highly likely to survive. When multiple victims are injured, triage rules change, and those in cardiac or respiratory arrest should receive the greatest efforts. Fixed, dilated pupils should not be used to establish death.

During an active thunderstorm, particularly if the victim is located in a high-risk area (eg, mountain top, isolated tree, open field), the rescuers may be placing themselves in significant danger of lightning injury. Because it is relatively uusual for victims who survive a lightning strike to have major fractures or internal injuries unless they have suffered a fall or been thrown a distance, the rescuer needs to decide whether evacuation from a high risk area to an area of lesser risk is warranted and should not be afraid to move the victim rapidly if necessary.
If the victim is not breathing or has no pulse, normal advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) protocols may be followed. If it is decided to move the victim, a few quick breaths should be administered before the person is moved. In situations that are cold and wet, putting a protective layer between the victim and the ground may decrease hypothermia, which can further complicate resuscitation.
In wilderness areas and in areas far from medical care, prolonged basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation is probably of little use because the victim is unlikely to recover if they do not respond within the first few minutes. If the pulse returns, the rescuer should continue ventilation with rescue breathing, if necessary, for as long as practical in a wilderness situation. However, if a pulse does not return after 20 to 30 minutes of good effort, the rescuer should not feel guilty about stopping resuscitation.

Key Recommendations

Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own safety decisions and should take appropriate action when threatened by lightning. They should not be penalized for leaving an area or situation that they deem dangerous. Exposure to the lightning threat during thunderstorm activity should be avoided.
Familiarity with and implementation of lightning safety guidelines can decrease injuries. Teachers, camp counselors, coaches, lifeguards, and other adults must take responsibility for the safety of children in their care. As groups become larger and evacuation times longer Lightning Action Plans must become more complex. Use of the “30–30 Rule,” designated weather spotters, NOAA weather radios, and lightning detection technology are components of a Lightning Action Plan.

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