There are lots of myths and misconceptions about lightning strikes on outings. However, one thing to always remember is that there is no place that is absolutely safe for Scouts during an electrical storm. Scouts and leaders have been hit by lightening (and killed) in shelters as well as open spaces. In fact, during one especially terrible storm at the Griswold Scout Reservation in New Hampshire, 23 Scouts who had taken shelter under a canopy were hospitalized after a lightning strike that hit close to them. The problem is serious enough that BSA has studied it and revamped the lightning safe procedures in the Guide to Safe Scouting, even mandating that leaders complete a Hazardous Weather course before going on outings. The result has been a decline in lightning related injuries and fatalities at Scout activities.
A lightning strike is an electric discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. According to the NOAA, over the last 20 years, the United States averaged 51 annual lightning strike fatalities per year, placing it just behind floods for weather-related deaths. In addition, lightning strikes hundreds of people every year that survive, and (depending upon the source) up to 80% of survivors sustain long-term injuries. Metal objects in the victim’s pockets (like smart phones) can concentrate the charge and make the injury even worse. Contrary to popular belief, however, a direct hit by a lightning bolt coming down from the sky is actually pretty rare and not a common way that Scouts are injured by lightning during a storm.
Lightning strikes are common – and dangerous
More than half of all lightning injuries and fatalities occur when lighting hits the ground near where Scouts are standing (or sheltering). The electrical current runs through the ground to nearby objects (like Scouts) that act as conductors to receive the charge. The result is burns on the body, and in extreme cases – death. If there is a nearby strike, touching your feet together at the heels can reduce the pathway of the electrical charge and minimize risk. In other words, if your feet are touching, the electricity will go up one foot and down the other. If your feet are not together, the electrical current will travel up through your body and have no easy exit point.
The second most dangerous lightning strike is called a “side flash.” The lightning hits a tall object (like a tree or tall pioneering project) and arcs sideways to objects of less resistance – like people standing nearby. (The lightning does not follow the tall object to the ground.) This kind of strike represents about a third of injuries and fatalities. A very similar danger is called “Upward Leader strikes” and accounts for about 10% of human injuries. In this case, the lightning is attracted to a taller object and then moves to something nearby. That is one reason why safety procedures stress having everyone crouch to get them into approximately the same height.
Lightning will often strike the tallest object in the area. Do not stand next to a single tall tree during a thunderstorm.
The least common causes of lightning injuries or fatalities (5-10%) are direct strikes and coming into contact with an object that is transmitting high voltage like a metal fence or electrical wire. (Philmont call this a “touch-volt” strike.) The best way to protect yourself from both is to move to a safer area – preferably before the storm envelops your crew.
You can estimate the distance to a lightning strike by counting the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder that follows. (One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, etc.) Divide the number of seconds by five (5) and this will be the approximate distance to the actual lightning strikes. Studies have shown that a second strike can occur 6 to 8 miles away from the first strike. Therefore, when the time between the strike and the thunder is less than 40 seconds you could be in danger if the storm is moving towards you. So, if you can hear thunder you might need need to take action quickly. There is no absolutely safe place outside in a thunderstorm, but here are some reasonable safety procedures.
• Separate and, if possible, find cover under clumps of shrubs or trees of uniform height.
• If there is no cover, crouch down with feet and knees together, chest on knees, and hands covering ears. Keep your feet together and touching.
• Always, spread out 25′ to 30′ from each other, but maintain voice contact.
• Stay off ridges and exposed passes. You are typically better off at lower elevations.
• Stay out of broad open areas like meadows or lakes.
• Caves are not safe.
• Avoid single high trees. (Do not set up your tents near them either!)
If you happen to be in a tent when a storm approaches, sit on your foam pad and pull your knees into your chest to create the smallest contact with the ground. If the lightning strikes are very close, cover your ears and close your eyes to reduce potential injury.
It goes without saying, that Scout leaders should be checking the weather forecast to understand the risk of potential thunderstorms in the area they plan to visit. However, it a thunderstorm does come up, play it safe.