Lightning is a dangerous weather threat that's frequently given only mild safety consideration. All too often, people wait until they see lightning to take precautionary safety measures. By then, it's too late.
Before lightning strikes, emergency responders need to be to be reminded to assist the public in getting to safety. When a lightning threat is imminent, people need to seek shelter in a safe place -- either in an electrically grounded building or in an enclosed vehicle.
The National Weather Service advises to mmediately get to a safe location when thunder is within hearing distance. The rule of thumb is to be in a safe spot by the time lightning is within six miles. This creates a predicament if an emergency responder is listening for thunder as a means of monitoring lightning activity. By the time thunder is detected, lightning may already be less than six miles away. Also adding to the danger, if a safe location is far or there's a large crowd to get to safety, lightning will already be dangerously close before everyone's out of harm's way.
This scenario creates a strong case for knowing when lightning is approaching before it's six miles away. The amount of time needed to carry out safety procedures depends on how long it takes to get everyone to safety. The amount of warning needed to get everyone at a little league game to safety is less than evacuating a large outdoor venue, such as a county fair.
Turning to Technology
There are weather information services that give advanced, location-specific lightning warnings. Alerts are sent when lightning strikes within a user-defined boundary, which generally coincides with a city's boundaries. Emergency responders can scale their alerting distance as needed for the varied evacuation times of different locales or events. Alerts can be viewed online and are sent to the cell phones of public safety professionals. Additionally, maps showing actual lightning strikes can be viewed via cell phone or the Internet. Implementing such weather technology in a dispatch center can serve as a valuable safety resource.
The advanced weather information generated by these tools is crucial for lightning safety. When lightning is within a certain distance, public safety professionals can receive advisories to give them a "heads up" to be on the lookout for approaching lightning. Once lightning has passed the advisory threshold, warnings are sent to emergency professionals. A common distance for receiving warnings to take evacuation action is eight miles. Again, it can be more, depending on how long it takes to evacuate. Then, once an alert has been issued, people should begin to get to safety. Being able to see where lightning is occurring in real time on a cell phone can be useful in establishing the credibility of a warning and is critical for carrying out successful evacuation strategies.
Getting people to safety in a timely manner is a clear priority, but knowing when to resume normal activity is equally important. Analysis has shown that one-third of lightning deaths come from resuming activity too early. Advanced weather information services notify emergency professionals when lightning risk has cleared the warning area. This helps ease the pressure once it "looks safe" to resume activity. These tools provide a means of ensuring the lightning risk has passed and no further thunderstorms are approaching.
Depending on radar is not an effective means of gauging when lightning is approaching or when the area is clear of lightning. Thunderstorms can produce lightning strikes 10 miles away from the storm, and using radar puts emergency professionals in danger of being struck by lightning before and after a storm.
Several weather service providers offer lightning information, but not all are created equal. Be sure to research what best fits your needs. Lightning information from some weather services is delayed anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, which is less useful than watching for lightning and listening for thunder. The typical length of a thunderstorm is 20 minutes, and relying on information delayed 30 minutes or more is dangerous. This only reinforces the need to receive lightning detection in real time.
Real-time lightning information is essential for public safety professionals before, during and after a storm goes through their area. Prior to a storm, receiving advanced warning of lightning assists emergency professionals in taking precautionary safety measures. Once a storm is in the area, having easy access to alerts and local radar via PC and cell phone keep emergency personnel aware of when it is safe to carry out normal activities. Utilizing such advanced weather technology will ensure action before it's too late.
Don Leickis the product management director at DTN/Meteorlogix. DTN/Meteorlogix is the country's largest business-to-business weather provider and is used by thousands of subscribers across the U.S. In 2008, a 12-month, third-party study by ForecastWatch.com found DTN/Meteorlogix precipitation forecasts outperformed all others in the industry -- and they had 40% greater accuracy than those of the National Weather Service.
For more information about DTN/Meteorlogix, visitwww.dtnmeteorlogix.com.
Clere here to read "When Lightning Strikes" from April JEMS.
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