Do Your Part to Protect Your District from Lightning

Colorado Lightning Photo

Lightning is a fascinating natural phenomenon that, while often beautiful, has the potential to cause serious damage. Lightning strikes in Colorado about 500,000 times annually,[1] and over the past 10 years, the Pool has paid just under $1 million for property claims resulting from lightning strikes. In fact, lightning damage to property represents a significant source of loss for the Pool. Most claims involved strikes to buildings, wells, motor vehicles, control panels and phone systems. In almost all of these cases, damage would have been minimized had simple safeguards been put in place.

There are steps you can take to prevent yourself, your property, and your buildings from being struck. It’s wise to invest in lightning grounding systems–more commonly referred to as lightning rods–in order to protect your property during a lightning storm. Lightning rods do not prevent buildings from being struck. Rather, they are designed to intercept lightning by providing a conductive path for the harmful electrical discharge to flow, dispersing the energy safely into the ground.

While lightning rods may help protect a structure from a direct lightning strike, a complete lightning protection system is needed to prevent harmful electrical surges and possible fires caused by lightning entering a structure via wires and pipes. Lightning protection systems should be purchased from and installed by a certified lightning protection specialist.

A direct lightning strike on a nearby power line can cause a surge in electrical power entering a building’s outlets. A bolt of lightning may contain about 30,000 amps and 300 million volts. In comparison, a standard household current is just 15 amps and about 120 volts.[2] Surge protectors are designed to automatically detect and filter this extra energy, but electronics plugged directly into unprotected sockets can suffer irreparable damage. If possible, you should unplug all unnecessary electrical appliances and electronic equipment not protected by a surge protector before a lightning storm arrives.[3]

shutterstock_41823601Fortunately, most lightning storms are easily detectable with modern weather radar systems, so meteorologists can generally warn people of a dangerous storm’s predicted path and intensity. Some radar systems can even detect individual lightning strikes within a storm system and warn specific areas of the potential for danger. However, the time to take precautions is long before the actual arrival of a storm. Once lightning begins to hit an area, it may be too late to save electronic equipment from getting damaged.3

A typical lightning flash is only one to two inches wide, but moves extremely fast. The “return stroke,” or the current that causes the visible flash, moves at a speed of about 320 million feet per second, or about 220 million miles per hour. This is roughly one-third the speed of light! To help put this into perspective, the sound of thunder travels at a relatively snail-like 1,100 feet per second, or about 750 m.p.h.

Lightning causes billions of dollars in damage and kills an average of 31 people in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately, Colorado is third in the nation when it comes to fatal lightning strikes.1 Those who survive are usually left with lingering and debilitating injuries.

Based on documented cases of lightning deaths and injuries, the nationwide odds of being killed or injured by lightning are estimated to be about 1 in 400,000 for each year of your life. Assuming a lifespan of 80 years, your lifetime odds are more than 1 in 12,000.2

Keep in mind, though, that your behavior around thunderstorms will largely determine your individual odds. If you are aware of all the threats posed by lightning and act accordingly, your chances of being struck will be considerably lower. On the other hand, not being aware of the dangers increases your odds significantly.2

Cardiac arrest is the immediate cause of death for those who die after being struck. Some deaths can be prevented with proper first aid. Victims of lightning strikes do not carry an electrical charge, are safe to touch, and may need immediate medical attention. In the event of a lightning strike, call 911 and be prepared to administer first aid if directed to do so by the 911 operator. CPR and use of an AED (automatic external defibrillator) may also be needed.

Are there any signs that a lightning strike is imminent?

Sometimes, but not always. There is little if any time to take action to protect yourself. Some of the signs include1:

  1. Your hair stands on end as charges from the ground surge to the top of your head
  2. You hear a distinctive snapping or crackling sound. These small discharges of static electricity may occur in an area where lightning is about to strike
  3. You experience a tingling sensation as electrical charges may be moving through your body
  4. There is a sudden increase in the static on portable electronic devices, as electrical charges may be moving through the devices
  5. An abnormal burning smell in the air, as static discharges within the air give off an unusual odor

LightningIf you experience any of these warning signs, it’s very possible that lightning is about to strike somewhere very near you. It is extremely important that you plan ahead to avoid this situation.

Safety Tips

  • Develop a written policy for severe weather and lightning safety and be sure all employees have access to it.
  • Designate a primary safety person.
  • The main goal during a strong lightning storm is to not be the tallest target in the area and to stay away from natural conductors such as standing water or metal fences.
  • If you must be outdoors, find a low spot or depression and crouch down as low as possible, but don’t lie down on the ground. Lightning can move in and along the ground surface, and many victims are struck by this current.
  • If outside, seek refuge in a car or grounded building when lightning or thunder begins. Cars act as a Faraday cage during a lightning strike, meaning the electrical energy gets directed around the car’s exterior, but occupants inside remain safe and insulated.
  • If indoors, avoid taking baths or showers and washing dishes. Also avoid using land line phones, televisions, and other appliances that conduct electricity.
  • Stay inside for 30 minutes after you last see lightning or hear thunder. People have been struck by lightning from storms centered as far as 10 miles away.

[1]http://www.coloradoan.com/story/sports/outdoors/2015/05/14/lightning-fatalities-colorado/27331519/
[2]http://www.wisegeek.com/how-should-i-prepare-for-lightning-storms.htm
[3]http://www.maine.gov/mema/prepare/prep_display.shtml?163524

 

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