Spring and summer sports have started and with that the chance of severe weather has started. Based on cases documented by the National Weather Service in recent years, about 30 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds more are injured. Some of these include devastating neurological injuries to people that persist for the rest of their lives. About two-thirds of all lightning fatalities are associated with outdoor recreational activities. Lightning-producing storms are more likely to occur between early spring and fall.
Lightning is a rapid release of electricity that can be cloud to cloud, cloud to air or cloud to ground. Thunder is always a precursor to lightning. The general rule is if you hear thunder, there is lightning nearby. Studies have shown that most people who suffer from lightning injuries were only a few feet away from safety but chose not to leave their unsafe environment. Many people wait far too long to start heading to safety, and that puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.
The best prevention is to establish a comprehensive proactive lightning policy within each venue’s emergency action plan. Your department’s emergency action plans should be updated regularly and reviewed annually by all event staff. The lightning safety plan should be followed without exception and give clear and specific safety guidelines to eliminate errors in judgment. The policy should include a chain of command to alert personnel of an impending storm. This person in command must have recognized and unchallengeable authority to suspend activity. This person should not be a coach, umpire or referee because these individuals are usually busy and can’t adequately monitor conditions. The lightning monitor must know the plan’s guidelines and be empowered to assure that they are followed. Do not base decisions on past experiences or a desire to complete the activity.
Designate a “lightning safe” facility for evacuations. This facility should be a fully enclosed building with both plumbing and wiring. Places like bleachers, dugouts, sheds, open air concession stands, pavilions, equipment sheds, tents and trees are not considered lightning safe. Also, locations with an open area, such as press boxes, screened porches and open garages are not safe from a lightning hazard. Lastly, bodies of water, including outdoor and indoor swimming pools are unsafe during a thunderstorm. If a fully enclosed building is not available, people should go inside a car or bus with the windows fully closed and doors shut. Once inside stay away from windows or anything that conducts electricity.
Staff should monitor local weather forecasts, use independently validated lightning-detection devices or mobile phone apps. This technology can help alert you to lightning strikes within 10 miles of your location; however, you should never depend solely on the reliability of these devices. Hearing thunder and seeing lightning should always take precedent over the data on an electronic device. Staff should have the number of the local weather service for up-to-date weather information.
The Emergency Action Plan should include a method for evacuating all the different groups. This includes athletes, staff and spectators as the plan for each group could vary. The plan should be developed according to crowd sizes, because it is important to account for the time it will take for everyone to get to safety.
The lightning emergency action should be activated when thunderstorms with lightning are within 10 miles. Depending on the attendance levels and proximity of adequate shelter, a larger radius of lightning may be prudent to provide time to prepare. Educate athletes, coaches, parents and referees about the dangers of lightning and the appropriate actions to take in the event of a storm. One of the keys to safety is individual education and responsibility.
Consider posting signs that promote lightning safety and indicated locations that provide protection. On these signs, consider catchy slogans such as: “If thunder roars – GO INDOORS”; “If you can HEAR it, CLEAR it”; “Don’t be a FOOL, get out of the POOL!”; or “Don’t be LAME, end the GAME.”
Determine what actions to take based on the threat level, whether to issue a warning or evacuate the facilities. Establish several methods of alerting staff and spectators of an incoming storm: two-way radios, announcement over the loudspeaker, outdoor siren, staff announcements and text message. Everyone should be in a safe zone BEFORE lightning reaches the playing field. All activities should be suspended upon the first observable lightning strike or sound of thunder.
Electrical charges can linger in clouds after a thunderstorm has seemed to pass. It is important to wait 30 minutes to resume play. The 30-minute clock restarts every time a lightning strike is seen, or thunder is heard.
Most victims can survive a lightning strike; however, they will need immediate medical attention. Make sure the scene is safe. Activate EMS for help. If needed, move the victim to a safe area for treatment. Victims do not carry an electrical charge and can be touched. In many cases, the victim’s heart and/or breathing may have stopped, so you should be prepared to administer CPR in these situations. Severe burns, fractures or trauma may also occur. Make sure to have an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) and first aid materials available.
A lightning victim can return to activities once the individual has been treated and cleared by appropriate medical personnel. This return should include a gradual progression back to full practice and play. The timeline for return to play is dependent upon the severity of injuries. Keep in mind that the individual may suffer from neurological disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders and physical weakness for long periods of time.
Lightning and thunder are the most dangerous threats associated with outdoor recreational activities. Staff should be proactive in promoting lightning safety, establish a chain of command and use reliable means of monitoring the weather. Identify locations safe from the lightning hazard. Establish specific criteria to suspend and resume activity. Plan for the safety of larger events, and have an AED and first aid materials available. Be prepared!
Walsh KM, Cooper MA, Holle R, Rakov V, RoederII WP, and Ryan, M. National athletic trainers’ association position statement: lightning safety for athletics and recreation. Journal of Athletic Training 2013;48(2):258-270.
National Federation of State High School Associations. Guideline on handling practices and contests during lightning or thunder disturbances. Accessed March 2021.
Thomson, EM and Howard TM. Lightning injuries in sports and recreation. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2013;12(2):120-4.
Walsh KM. Lightning and severe thunderstorms in event management. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2012;11(3):131-4.
National Weather Service. Lightning Safety and Outdoor Sports Activities. Accessed March 2021.
Druvenga, B., Lightning Safety. Board of Certification Athletic Trainers. May 31,2018.
Lightning. Korey Stringer Institute. University of Connecticut. Accessed February 2021.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lifeguard Lightning Safety Guidelines. Accessed February 2021.
Carrie McCloskey, MA, ATC, is an athletic trainer with Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Verle Valentine, MD, FAMSSM, FACSM, is a sports medicine physician with Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the medical director for the Sanford Sports Science Institute, an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota, and team physician for South Dakota State University. He is also a current member of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC).