The lone lifeguard stood on Stewart Beach. The air was thick as a dark, green frontal system moved in from the north. In the distance lifeguard trucks drove up and down the beach using their loudspeakers to let people know lightning was moving into the area. Bolts of lightning struck nearby. The lifeguard whistled at the few remaining people in the area and yelled for them to get out of the water. Suddenly, time stood still and the air crackled with electricity. He realized he was lying on his back. A filling in his mouth hurt, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he felt as if insects were running across his temples.
With fall quickly approaching we’ll soon start to see regular frontal systems that bring lightning into the area more frequently. This incident, which happened years ago, is a real reminder that lifeguards and other public safety professionals are not immune to the very dangers they work to protect people from. It is also not very likely to happen again because as our understanding of the lightning processes has improved, we’ve restructured our protocols to minimize danger to our staff by pulling tower guards immediately while we notify the public from our vehicles, and new technology is currently being used to reduce risk to both our staff and to the beach going public.
Lightning most frequently occurs within 10 miles of a thunderstorm, so it is generally recommended that people take shelter when lightning comes within this distance. One way to tell how close lightning is involves counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the corresponding thunder roar. This is known as the “flash to bang rule”. Every five seconds is a mile, so if the time between the flash and the bang is less than 50 seconds, you want to clear out. There are also apps, websites, and devices that let you know how close lightning is to you. At Beach Patrol, we pay an annual fee for a program that not only alerts us when lightning moves within a certain distance, but can predict when this may happen.
It’s not enough to seek shelter in a building. It has to be fully enclosed, grounded, and have electrical and plumbing. Boats aren’t really safe at all, but if you have to ride it out in one, it should be in a cabin without touching electronics or the walls. Cars are pretty safe, but not as good as proper buildings, and again, don’t touch metal frameworks.
If you are caught in a lightning storm on the beach and can’t get to an enclosed building or car, don’t just run to a partially enclosed picnic table or similar structure. Instead, stay away from the tallest objects (lifeguard stands, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or bleachers), standing pools of water, and open areas.
You can monitor thunderstorms and severe weather forecasts online at www.spc.noaa.gov . For more information about lightning safety, a good site is www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov .