Lightning on Campus: Your Vulnerability Might Shock You

Have you conducted a hazard analysis of lightning strikes? With the exception of about only six states, lightning risks should be on your radar.

According to the U.S. Lightning Detection Network (USLDN), the vast majority of states experience enough lightning activity each year to warrant consideration in your school’s safety procedures. Once the data is mapped, it’s clear that the Midwest and Southeast are at greatest risk. However, truly any campus in many areas of states like Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—and even states in New England—should prepare.

Lightning Strikes Kill 42 People per Year

At this point, the professionals in hazard analysis are probably asking themselves, “Yes, lightning occurs in my locale, but what are the consequences?” Consider this: According to the National Weather Service (NWS), lightning has killed an average of 42 people per year over the last 10 years. Run the numbers over the past 30 years, and that average is higher at 58. That number essentially ties the 30-year average for annual fatalities due to tornadoes; and solidly trumps the annual average of 48 hurricane deaths.

So, from a life-safety perspective, is the amount of preparedness you invest into tornadoes and/or hurricanes commensurate to the risk of fatalities?

As we dive into history, it is also important to note that the average annual fatality count from lightning has dropped significantly in recent decades. In the 1940s, an average in excess of 300 people died due to lightning strikes. That number dropped to 150 in the 1960s; and 75 in the 1980s. That begs the question: Why have the numbers decreased so significantly? Is there less lightning? Certainly not. Is there new technology to protect against lightning? Perhaps. Are people better educated? We certainly hope so.

Let’s take another look at the lightning fatality rate for 2000 to 2009. When you weight the number of fatalities by state population, a new and interesting trend arises. It’s no surprise that among the top 10 deadliest states per capita are Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. However, there is another cluster of states: Colorado, Utah, Montana, and South Dakota. Most notably, however, is the highlight on Vermont and Maine.

Based upon the Cloud-to-Ground Lightning Incidents chart, we could have almost eliminated New England completely from this discussion. However, throw in Rhode Island, and you have three of the highest fatality rates in the United States per state population. 

“When Thunder Roars, Head Indoors”

A common misconception is that lightning is a highly localized phenomenon. There have been numerous cases of “blue sky” lightning strikes, where the individual thought he or she was far enough away or had enough time ahead of a thunderstorm to perhaps take in one more hole on the course. Lightning can strike as far away as 10 miles. In some extreme cases, distances of up to 20 miles have been reported.

Coincidentally, this is also the approximate distance from which you can hear thunder. This is why the NWS preaches, “When thunder roars, head indoors.” If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning.

The threat can also last well after it has stopped raining. This is the second half of what the NWS calls the “30-30 Rule.” Wait 30 minutes or more after hearing the last clap of thunder before leaving safe shelter. “Half an hour since thunder roars, now okay to go outdoors” is a good saying for kids to remember.

NCAA Takes Lightning Safety Seriously

Lightning also does not discriminate. Who gets struck the most? Of those killed by lightning in Florida from 2000-2009:

  • 98 percent were outdoors
  • 89 percent were male
  • 30 percent were 10-19 years old
  • 20 percent were 20-29 years old
  • 25 percent were standing under a tree
  • 25 percent occurred on or near a water body

In line with these statistics, it is no surprise that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) takes lightning safety seriously. Most lightning-related fatalities occur in children, teenagers and athletes who are outdoors. The NCAA has developed “Guideline 1d: Lightning Safety” (July 1997, Revised June 2007). However, just like most guidelines, they are considered more recommendations than hard and fast rules. It is incumbent upon each institution to develop its own lightning safety program, policies, and procedures. It is also a self-monitored program, with the exception of post-season tournaments.  

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