Lightning and Its Hazards

Lightning is the most consistent and significant weather hazard that athletes encounter. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, 100 fatalities and between 400 and 500 injuries requiring medical treatment occur from lightning strikes each year in the general American population. Even though the probability of being struck is extremely low, the danger increases when a storm is in the area and proper safety precautions are not followed.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has developed guidelines for lightning safety. Prevention and education are the key factors in these guidelines. Prevention starts with having a plan of action. The first step in this plan is to designate a chain of command. One person monitors an approaching storm and informs the person in charge if he or she believes athletes need to be evacuated from the playing field. The person in charge of making the final decision about evacuation is usually a certified athletic trainer (ATC), game official, or coach. The game official and coach have duties during the game or practice that prevent them from adequately monitoring an approaching storm. Therefore, having someone who is familiar with lightning patterns serve as the storm monitor is imperative. The ATC on staff is the perfect choice.

The storm monitor must also obtain a weather report before the game or practice so that he or she is aware of any weather system that may affect the area. Some areas have a severe weather warning system through the National Weather Service. Storm monitors must familiarize themselves with the warning system in their areas.

The second step in the prevention plan involves evacuation of the athletes. This step must be planned in advance of an evacuation. During evacuation, athletes are directed to a location that offers protection from the storm by having at least three walls and a roof. Metal structures are not considered adequate protection because the lightning can travel along the metal and strike the people inside the structure. Trees also do not provide adequate protection. Lightning can strike a tree, travel down it, and strike the people seeking shelter under it. Many people have lost their lives because they thought a tree offered a safe haven during a storm.

Education about lightning is a necessary part of the safety guidelines. Understanding lightning patterns can save your life. The two ways to determine whether lightning is close by are the flash-to-bang theory and the lightning prediction system. The flash-to-bang theory consists of counting the seconds between the lightning flash and the bang of thunder. Every five seconds between the flash and the bang equals one mile. The NCAA recommends that at 30 seconds (when the lightning is only six miles away) the athletes need to be evacuated. Remember, lightning can strike up to 10 miles from the storm without previous lightning strikes to warn you.

The lightning protection system is an electronic monitoring system. It monitors energy from as far away as 15 miles and evaluates the energy field for lightning. The system automatically gives a signal to warn everyone in the area that lightning has been detected.

To prevent a catastrophic event, respond sensibly when lightning is in the area. Gambling with lightning is not a risk worth taking. If you are not sure it is safe to be in the area, evacuate immediately.

Bruce Getz, ATC, and Kelli Bowermeister
Columbus, Georgia