By Greg Bach
Last summer, during a youth soccer practice in Texas, a bolt of lightning struck 9-year-old Alex Hermann – stopping his heart – and changing his life forever.
The youngster suffered burn wounds and hypoxia, which is when the brain can’t get enough oxygen; he’s undergone horrifically painful skin-grafting and wound-closure surgeries; he’s had a cardiac ablation procedure that corrects heart arrhythmias; and he’s confined to a wheelchair.
Welcome to the terrifying power and unpredictable danger of lightning, which kills 50 people on average every year in the United States and injures about 500 more, many of whom never fully recover.
“When it comes to staying safe from lightning and severe weather, minutes really matter,” says Sean Bergesen, a National Youth Sports Coaches Association coach in Maryland and manager at WeatherBug, which operates the world’s largest and most comprehensive weather and lightning sensor network, including warning sirens to protect those outdoors. “Your responsibilities as a coach extend beyond just teaching skills and sportsmanship. You are also responsible for the safety of the individuals on your team, so you need to always be prepared for the potential of severe weather.”
STRIKING WITHOUT WARNING
Witnesses to the lightning bolt that struck Alex told reporters it wasn’t raining at the time and that the strike seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Most people don’t realize that a lightning strike can hit up to 10 miles from an approaching storm, even when the sky is blue,” says Frank McCathran, a youth baseball and football coach who is also the enterprise director for WeatherBug. “Innovations in lightning detection and alerting provide protection that far exceeds the old adage ‘when thunder roars, go indoors.’ Once you hear thunder, you may already be in danger. Our technology quickly highlights the location and distance of approaching lightning, so individuals can know before severe weather hits.”
In addition to alerting sirens for outdoor venues, WeatherBug provides Spark™ on its WeatherBug app for Apple iPhones and iPads, and Android phones and tablets. Spark provides minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile lightning proximity alerts for your own location, your favorite locations, or anywhere in the world. The WeatherBug app for Android is available free of charge in Google Play HERE while the WeatherBug app for iOS is available free of charge in the App Store HERE. The company also recently introduced its WeatherBug app for Apple Watch.
“When you look at the details, many lightning strike victims are hit because people do not seek safe shelter early enough because it is not raining where they are playing,” Bergesen explains. “They’re thinking they have a few more minutes and then a lightning strike apparently hits out of the blue. But usually the strike isn’t out of the blue -- there is advanced warning of lightning activity within a dangerous range.
LIGHTNING SAFETY TIPS
- Ditch the 30-30 rule – it’s a myth: Many still follow the 30-30 rule, falsely believing they can tell how close they are to a lightning strike by counting the seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the thunder. The fact is, if you are close enough to hear thunder, you are already in danger, as lightning can strike 10 miles from a storm.
- Know the day’s forecast: Check the forecast online, on the radio, or on your mobile phone before heading out. If you have a smartphone, check the radar and use the lightning detection features on your weather app to check if thunderstorms are heading your way.
- Look up: Scan the sky for large cumulus clouds, which are large, towering white and rounded clouds with grayish or dark undersides. Cumulus clouds are early signs of thunderstorms.
- Find safety indoors: If a storm is on its way, stop the game or practice and move to a safe indoor area. Typically, this would be a permanent, enclosed building with four walls and a roof – not a pavilion, tent or open structure. If this type of building is not available, hard-topped cars are better – but not ideal – choices, and can provide some protection if all of the windows are closed.
“When it comes down to it, when people are actually out there in the open and they have to make decisions, they don’t necessarily make the best decisions,” says McCathran. “If you are in a pavilion, or any kind of temporary structure, you are not safe. Time and time again, when we see people struck by lightning – whether they are killed or whether they are injured – they are out in the open, in an inappropriate shelter, or even under trees. That’s why it is critically important to take the necessary steps for safety.”
PROVIDING HELP TO A LIGHTNING STRIKE VICTIM
StruckbyLightning.org offers these tips for helping someone who has been struck by lightning:
- People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge and can be handled safely. The injured person has received an electrical shock and may be burned where they were struck and where the electricity left their body.
- Call for help. Get someone to dial 911 or your local Emergency Medical Services number.
- Give first aid. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped beating, a trained person should give CPR. It is important to help victims as soon as possible because left untreated, people struck by lightning suffer from a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms.
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