Lightning Safety: Four things parents, children, athletes and coaches need to know

Kimberly Brooke Pengel, M.D., is board certified in both Pediatrics and Pediatric Sports Medicine.

Do your children know to come inside when they are playing in a thunderstorm?  Do you know how to protect yourself from lightning?  Does your child’s coach call off practice/games in a thunderstorm?

The risk of unfavorable weather occurring during sports participation is often a reality and the threat of being struck by lightning is often an underrated danger.  Each year, more than 400 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning, resulting in an average of 70 deaths. This tragedy is largely preventable if proper safety measures are understood and put into practice.


1. Basic Lightning Facts

  • All thunderstorms produce lightning.
  • Lightning strikes can cause death or permanent disability.
  • If you can hear thunder, the storm is close enough for lightning to strike.
  • It does not have to be raining for lightning to strike.


2. Precautions for Outdoor Activities/Sports events

  • Be prepared to postpone outdoor activity if thunderstorms are imminent.
  • Plan ahead and create a lightning safety plan. Know where people will seek shelter. Have guidelines for suspending the activity and for restarting. Always follow the plan despite pressure to continue the event
  • Keep watching the conditions. Watch the sky for darkness, flashes, and progressing wind. Listen for thunder. Consider using a weather radio or smartphone for accurate weather conditions. Weatherbug is a free mobile app that is accurate and helpful to track conditions. Flash to Bang: Calculate distance to the lightning: Distance (in miles)= Seconds (between lightning to thunder) divided by 5. Follow the 30-Second Rule: By the time the Flash to Bang is 30 seconds (6 miles), all individuals should be seeking shelter
  • Avoid open areas.
  • Stay away from tall objects, which are higher risk for strike. This includes trees, poles, towers or similar objects.
  • Do not go near metal (bleachers, fences, posts etc.).  Lightning can travel long distances through metal.
  • Suspend activity until 30 minutes after the last thunder.


3. Storm Safety Steps

    • Seek shelter as soon as possible! A substantial building is best.  A car/vehicle can protect you.  Be sure to close all windows and do not lean against metal in the car.
    • Avoid small structures, such as rain coverings or stand-alone bathrooms, which are not protective and attract lightning.
    • If you are swimming, get out of the water immediately and move away from the water.

Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

If you feel your hair standing on end, lightning is about to strike and there may not be time to seek shelter.  When this happens, assume the “lightning crouch”:

  • Crouch down on the balls of your feet and lean over with your hands over your ears.
  • Make yourself as small a target as possible, with as little contact to ground as you can manage.
  • Do not lie flat on the ground.


4. Lightning First Aid

  • Call 9-1-1 for help. Victims do not carry electrical charge and need immediate attention.
  • Give first aid.  Cardiac arrest is the cause of fatality.  Begin CPR if necessary.
  • Move the victim to a safer place.  Contrary to what you’ve heard, lightning can strike the same location twice.

Most importantly, keep informed! Educate your children about lightning safety and rehearse emergency scenarios.  Discuss the facts and encourage your child’s coaches to adhere to a lightning safety plan.

For more information on lightning safety, visit the website for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).


Kimberly Brooke Pengel, M.D., is board certified in both Pediatrics and Pediatric Sports Medicine. Dr. Pengel is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and completed her residency and fellowship at the University of Colorado. She currently practices at the Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Institute  part of the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

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