Summer Safety Series
Summer is a great time of year to be outdoors. The kids are out of school with lots of free time to explore – whether it’s hiking, spending a day at the park, swimming or doing some other type of athletic activity. However, there are certain things you should always keep in mind to make the most out of your fun in the sun and to ensure you and your loved ones stay safe.
Welcome to UNM Health’s Summer Safety Series. This first installment will focus on a potentially quick-striking danger: lightning.
Remember to play it safe when lightning strikes
By Terry Kelly
The first step in keeping safe during potential thunderstorms is to be prepared.
“When lightning is nearby, always try to get ahead of it,” says Robert Rimorin, athletic trainer for the UNM baseball who monitors weather conditions to keep students and staff safe. “We look at the incoming radar to get an idea of what we might be dealing with. Green means light rain, yellow is heavier, and red and pink is really heavy rain. Lightning will usually come in those areas that are yellow and red, although it can really happen anywhere.”
Though it’s rare that the UNM Health System’s Burn Center has treated victims of a lightning strike, medical professionals are ready to step in and provide the best possible care for the patient.
“If we were to get a lightning injury, we would treat it like an electric burn,” says Eugene C. Wu, MD, FACS and director of the Burn Center. “(We would) monitor for mental status changes indicative of brain injury and cardiac monitoring to monitor for arrhythmias due to the electrical insult. Although the entry and exit wounds for lightning injuries may be small, there could be extensive tissue damage inside such as muscle necrosis and damage.”
When lightning is in your area, a good rule to follow is the flash-to-bang method. Since light travels much faster than sound, every five seconds between a flash of lightning and the ensuing thunder equals one mile. If it’s ever under 30 seconds (six miles) then you should immediately seek shelter.
“I always go a step further and practice under 35 seconds,” Rimorin says, “because if lightning is that close, then it can strike anywhere within that seven-mile radius. Sometimes it can be challenging to count because there are multiple strikes in the area, so it’s not foolproof, but it’s something you can use in a pinch.”
Examples of good shelter include:
- A grounded building with plumbing and/or electricity.
- An enclosed, vehicle with a metal exterior and the windows rolled up. (Be sure not to touch any metal while in your car just in case it is struck.)
- NOTE: A motorcycle is NOT a safe place during a thunderstorm. According to the NOAA, the last three people to die in New Mexico from lightning strikes were riding motorcycles at the time.
If you’re indoors, stay away from windows, don’t touch anything electrical that is plugged in, and avoid plumbing. If lightning strikes the building you’re in, it can travel through any of those objects.
If you’re far from a suitable shelter and stuck in the elements, there are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting hit:
- Minimize risk by moving to a lower elevation immediately. Avoid large open spaces and isolated objects such as trees, and get away from unprotected vehicles and metal structures.
- Get out of water (streams/rivers, lakes, swimming pools, etc.).
- If you’re in a group, spread out so there are 50-100 feet between people to reduce risk of multiple people being injured with one strike.
- If you’re hiking with a backpack that has metal on it, take it off and keep it 100 feet away from your shelter.
Use your CPR skills
Unfortunately, sometimes you can take all the necessary precautions and disaster can still strike. If someone is hit by lightning, they do not retain any electrical charge so it is possible for you to treat them right away.
“First you need to make sure the scene is safe enough for you to go assist them,” says Rimorin. “If you can, call 911 right away. Then check their airway to see if they’re breathing and their pulse to see if their heart is beating. If they’re not breathing or you don’t detect a pulse, go into basic CPR skills to try and keep them alive until help arrives.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 310 people are struck by lightning each year in the United States. However, only about 10 percent of those strikes are fatal. So here are some more tips on what to do if someone is struck by lightning:
- Check for and treat burns, especially around metal objects the person might’ve been wearing (such as watches, necklaces, etc.)
- Keep the injured person warm and calm to prevent shock from setting in.
Did You Know?
The UNM athletic department has a Thor Guard lightning detection system to help keep its student-athletes and staff safe. The system detects electromagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere and can predict when lightning is likely to strike in its area.
Time lightning strikes
Finally, remember that just because you think a storm has passed doesn’t mean it’s safe to go back outside. Wait at least 30 minutes after you last hear thunder to resume any activity outdoors.
“Even if the weather is clear outside, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear,” Rimorin says. “After we hear thunder, we set a timer for 30 minutes. If at any time during those 30 minutes there is another lightning strike, we re-set the timer. Once we go 30 minutes with no lightning and thunder, then we deem it is safe enough to leave our shelter and go back outside.”