The safest and most obvious place to be in a thunderstorm is indoors. If lightning strikes a house or a building directly, it will tend to follow the available paths to ground, including the electrical wiring, plumbing, cable or telephone lines, antennas and/or steel framework. When lightning hits skyscrapers, the current is diverted safely to ground. The building and its occupants are unaffected. The fact that houses and buildings have an abundance of grounding paths makes them generally safe lightning shelters, but to ensure maximum safety during a storm:
- Don’t use any wired appliance or device. Wireless appliances (cordless phones, razors, etc) are safe to use.
- Stay away from water pipes and faucets. (No baths, showers, etc.)
- Don’t stand on a basement floor or patio slab, or anywhere where standing water or excessive moisture is present. These areas are ‘ground current’ danger zones.
- Stay away from walls where electrical wiring is present. Lightning will occasionally jump through the air inside a house or building to reach a better grounding path, such as from electrical wires to a water pipe.
Structures like bus shelters, outhouses, lean-to shelters, or any small non-metal structure do not provide any lightning protection.
Head for the car
- If no structural shelter is available, hard-topped automobiles offer sufficient lightning protection. Roll up the windows and don’t touch any part of the metal frame (like resting your arm on the window) or any wired device in the vehicle (including the steering wheel or plugged-in cellular phone).
- A direct strike to your car will flow through the frame of the vehicle and usually jump over or through the tires to reach ground.
- Most lightning incidents to cars result in one or more flat tires and damage to the electrical system, but no injury to the occupants.
You are in equal danger of a lightning injury outdoors regardless of whether or not you are standing near, carrying, or wearing any metal objects.
- Lightning is a large-scale event that is not influenced by small ojects on the ground, so distancing yourself from small metal objects will not make you safe from lightning.
- Metal objects like umbrellas, golf clubs, bicycles and fences will attract a lightning channel only if the strike is already a few feet away – in which case you would still experience an injury from being that close to begin with.
- Jewelry, spiked shoes, watches or hair berets will do nothing to influence a lightning strike’s ground termination. However, if you are hit directly, lightning will usually flow through any metal objects on your person, superheating (even vaporizing) them and causing burns.
- If you are caught outside, stay away from tall, isolated objects like trees, flagpoles, or posts. Remember that, contrary to the myth, lightning doesn’t always strike the tallest or most conductive object – it can strike anywhere.
- Stay away from shorelines, railroad tracks, and metal fences which could bring current from a ‘far-away’ lightning strike to you.
- Although still not as safe as being indoors, dense woods provide a little protection due to the large number of trees that decrease the chance of lightning strike to a tree next to you. However in this (and any) case, don’t stand close to any of the trees.
Lightning Warning Signs
In addition to the obvious warning of an ominously darkening sky, there are certain conditions that can alert you to a lightning danger before the strikes threaten. You are in a ‘danger zone’ and need to seek immediate shelter if you experience any of the following:
- Raindrops or hail: Rain of any intensity (but more so with heavy rain) may signal the presence of a thunderstorm cloud directly overhead, even if it has not yet produced any lightning or thunder. Large, ‘fat’ raindrops are ominous, telltale signs of a towering cloud that has the potential to produce a lightning strike at any second.
- Audible thunder or visible flashes: If you can see lightning or hear thunder at all, you are within range of the next strike.
- Large, towering clouds: Cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) clouds can develop rapidly overhead, even among pleasant-looking skies, sometimes leaving no ‘dark sky’ appearance that often otherwise precedes a thunderstorm.
- Static on an AM radio: Distinctive crackling and popping sounds on an AM radio indicate that lightning is occuring in your area.
- Lightning Detector Alarms: Several handheld lightning detectors are on the market that sound an alarm when lightning occurs within a set distance. If your job or pasttime involves large amounts of time outdoors, a portable lightning detector could be a good investment.
A close or direct lightning strike will sometimes give you a short warning a few seconds before the event, usually in the form of:
- A soft or loud buzzing, clicking, hissing or cracking sound.
- A tingling sensation
- Hairs on the arm or head standing on end
- Nearby metal objects emitting a soft, blue-white glow called ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’
These signs indicate a direct strike may occur within seconds. In most cases, you will not have time to react. However, if you are unable to reach shelter and you experience any of these signs, or if you otherwise feel that you are in immediate danger, assume the following position quickly: Move your feet close together, crouch down, and grab your ankles. Tuck your head down as far as you can. Don’t lie flat on the ground.
- A lightning victim is safe to touch, in other words, they do not retain any ‘electrical charge’ from the strike.
- Typically a lightning strike will cause cardiac and/or repiratory arrest that can be corrected by proper resuscitation (CPR). Many lightning-related deaths occur when the victim does not receive the proper medical attention.
- A lightning strike can seriously alter your life as you know it. In other words, go with your best bet: Play it safe.