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When Lightning Approaches, Let It Play Through!

[August 13, 2003] — By Roger Mooney, Senior Risk Engineering Consultant, Zurich Services Corporation

Lightning is nature’s way of showing us who’s boss. During a thunderstorm, lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the rain area. That’s about the distance from which you can hear thunder. When a storm is 10 miles away, it may be difficult to even tell that a storm is approaching.

Two forms of lightning … one is deadly
Lightning is a transient discharge of static electricity that serves to re-establish electrostatic equilibrium within a storm environment. In less than one second, the air is heated to between 15,000 and 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Flashes can produce between 100 and one billion volts of electricity and between 10,000 and 200,000 amps.1

There are two basic forms of lightning – cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground. During a thunderstorm, each flash of cloud-to-ground lightning is a potential killer. Whether or not a particular flash becomes deadly depends upon whether a person is in the path of the lightning discharge.

Is Your Course Protected?
Early lightning detection systems offer the ultimate protection for golfers and course owners. These systems detect cloud-to-cloud lightning, which is a precursor to cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. Systems vary from prediction to detection of lightning in a predetermined area. The cost of such systems also varies from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Lighting detection and notification systems are only effective if the detection area is adequate, notification is heard throughout the course, and the course enforces a strict "Stop Play” policy. Additionally, testing and maintaining the system in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines will reduce the risk of liability (which course owners tend to associate with these systems should they fail).

Are Employees Trained and Knowledgeable?
Employees (and golfers) should be well versed in your course’s safety procedures. For example:

  • Employees should insist that golfers drive back to the clubhouse as soon as the alarm sounds. Consider rain checks in case the round or event is cancelled.
  • If returning to the clubhouse is impractical, golfers should know to go to the nearest protected shelter.
  • If golfers cannot reach either, they should be instructed to remove their golf spikes, not carry any clubs or umbrellas, and proceed to the nearest low lying area, away from trees.
  • An "all clear” siren can be sounded once the storm passes.
  • It is also important that employees be trained in emergency response procedures.

Are Your Shelters Adequate?
Once golfers are alerted to stop play and seek shelter, adequate lightning protection is necessary. This often means a protected comfort station or halfway house. Regardless of the comfort station’s size or design, lightning protection should be provided. A typical lightning protection system for such a structure includes air terminals (rods), down conductors and ground terminals. These elements must form a continuous conductive path for lightning current, with all connections between the elements typically accomplished by bolting or welding.

The goal of a lightning protection system is to intercept lightning and safely direct its current to the ground. There are several design options. However, even a small shelter should have these basic elements:

  • At least one air terminal (or equivalent)
  • At least two, but preferably four, down conductors on two diagonally opposite sides of the structure
  • Ground terminals connected to the down conducts

During thunderstorms, golfers and course employees should avoid unprotected shelters. Signs should be posted in unprotected shelters indicating that the structure does not offer lightning protection.

Increasing awareness
The USGA lighting poster, What to Do When Lightning is Near, as well as cart decals, remind golfers of the dangers of playing during an approaching storm. Lightning safety tips should be prominently displayed in the pro shop, weather shelters and perhaps even on scorecards.

The National Oceanic and Atmos-pheric Association (NOAA) has partnered with members of the PGA of America in developing the "Lightning Kills, Play It Safe” campaign. The campaign is designed to lower lightning death and injury rates and America’s vulnerability to one of nature’s deadliest hazards.

Golfer that are caught on the golf course. Golfers, and others should run into a forest if a shelter or car is not nearby. Drop metal objects like golf clubs, tennis rackets, umbrellas, and packs with internal or external metal frames.

Get off golf carts, tractors (including lawn tractors), motorcycles, bicycles, and horses. Metal bleachers at sports events, metal fences, and utility poles are also to be avoided.

If you are caught in an open field, seek a low spot. Crouch with your feet together and head low.

If Someone Is Struck

People who have been hit by lightning carry no electric charge and can be safely tended to. Also, victims who appear dead can often be revived. If it's an option, call 911 for help. If the person is not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But if a pulse is absent as well and you know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), begin CPR. Stay with the victim until help arrives.

Don't sit or lie down, because these positions provide much more contact with the ground, providing a wider path for lightning to follow. If you are with a group and the threat of lightning is high, spread out at least 15 feet apart to minimize the chance of everybody getting hit (see "If Someone Is Struck").

Don't return to an open area too soon. People have been struck by lightning near the end of a storm, which is still a dangerous time.

What are the odds?
What are the odds of lightning striking someone on your golf facility? It depends on where you’re located. Golf courses in Florida have a much higher chance than those in other areas of the country. But regardless of location, your preparations for an electrical storm can improve your odds of keeping your members or patrons safe. But if you think it can’t happen, consider this:

  • In the ten-year period from 1990-2000, lightning killed an average of 55 people annually in the United States. Florida led the way in lighting fatalities, typically followed by Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas.2
  • Lightning strikes an average of 8.6 million times a day throughout the world. One death occurs per every 345,000 flashes, one injury per every 114,000 flashes. In the United States, one lighting casualty is likely to occur for every 86,000 flashes.3
  • The odds of being a lighting casualty in the U.S. are approximately 280,000 to 1. These odds vary according to your geographical location, climate, personal lifestyle and hobbies. For example, in Florida, the odds are much higher — approximately 80,000 to 1. That means Floridians are 287 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win their state lottery.4

Don’t depend on luck alone
In 1991, lightning resulted in fatalities at two PGA TOUR events: Hazletine and the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. These unfortunate incidents demonstrated the vulnerability of golfers and spectators who are exposed during thunderstorms. It also opened the eyes of many course owners and convinced them to install lightning detection systems.

Golf courses without storm policies, procedures and some form of lightning protection are neglecting the safety of their customers. If a detection/notification system cannot be installed, alternative measures should be taken to protect players.

Of course, some golfers refuse to believe that they could possibly be struck by lighting and must be dragged off the course. Odds are, those are the same dreamers who are confident they hold that winning lottery ticket!