Lightning safety is an essential topic to anyone who plans or organizes a live event, whether a concert, sporting event or festival.
On June 13, 1998, Lysa Selfon learned that the hard way. Lightning struck while attending the Tibetan Freedom Concert at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, DC.
Lysa was struck by lightning and sustained second and third-degree burns to more than 20% of her body. She was intubated and in critical condition. While she survived and recovered, her long-term symptoms continued, including short-term memory loss and a lack of energy.
At the time, a friend commented that there was nothing that concert organizers could have done to prevent the horrible accident. She noted, “This was a natural disaster. The lightning struck before the weather got bad…It was not raining yet.”
In today’s world of advanced weather tracking technology, is that still true? What can event organizers do to keep their attendees safe?
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Keep reading to learn more about lightning safety and how you can protect your attendees at these events.
How dangerous is lightning?
Lightning can be dangerous, and lightning safety is paramount at live events.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), lightning kills about 43 people annually in the United States alone, on average. Of those fatalities: 75% of lightning victims die from cardiac arrest.
Even those that survive, like the example noted above, suffer from long-term effects. Examples of long-term symptoms range from depression and fatigue to headaches, tremors, and balance problems.
While lightning has always been an issue, recent climate change has increased its frequency. The journal Science reported that a 12% increase in lightning activity could be seen for every 1°C of warming, equal to a 50% increase in lightning strikes in the United States by the year 2200.
Myths about lightning
There are statements made about lightning accepted as universal facts that are, in fact, not true. Understanding the truth about lightning is key to being able to prepare and keep others safe.
Myth 1: If it’s not raining or cloudy, then you are safe.
False! Lightning can strike from a cloudless sky, and lightning is unpredictable, so you should never assume it’s safe.
Myth 2: Lightning does not strike the same place twice.
False! According to lightningmaps.org, lightning strikes the same place as much as 50 times per year. Lightning is unpredictable and can strike anywhere!
Myth 3: You are only in danger during storms/when thunder roars.
False! When lightning strikes the ground, there is no time to avoid being struck because lightning moves faster than the speed of sound.
Myth 4: Lightning only strikes the tallest objects.
Not necessarily! Again, lightning is indiscriminate and might hit the ground instead of a stage.
Myth 5: Go under a tree when lightning strikes.
In fact, a tree is one of the worst places to be when lightning strikes! The safest place to be during a storm is an enclosed building with wiring and plumbing.
Lightning and public events
Lightning is always dangerous, yet it poses a specific threat during public events. Consider three reasons why that is true:
The Tibetan Freedom Festival of 1998 was the second-largest benefit concert at the time. Concert organizers sold over 60,000 tickets, so the sheer number of attendees made the likelihood of injuries more probable.
There is a host of electrical equipment setup from sound systems to lighting at concerts and other live events. As a result, if lightning hits a large tower, there is a high risk of electrocution to the public.
While the public may be aware of the danger of lightning in a general sense, there are many noted misconceptions about how lightning strikes.
For example, in 2021, six people were injured in Atlanta after seeking shelter under a tree that was struck by lightning during the third round of the PGA Tour.
The domino effect
When lightning strikes, the effects can ripple and cause further damage.
For example, in 2010, lightning caused the collapse of stage rigging during a performance by The Who in Toronto. The injury toll included five crew members killed, not by lightning directly, but by falling equipment when it collapsed on them.
Lightning safety for live events
Keeping people safe at a live event involves many steps.
First, complete a risk assessment to understand what dangers may be present during the event. Then, establish thresholds to determine when an event will be canceled or rescheduled.
Second, put lightning safety procedures in place. These procedures include lightning safety plans that need to be followed during lightning activity.
The final step for lightning safety at live events is training all staff and volunteers on the lightning procedures in place. Many people will not naturally know what to do, so they should be made aware ahead of time.
Finally, a “safe place” should be determined and set up on the day of the event. Organizers and staff should communicate the location of a “safe place” to everyone in advance.
Proactive not reactive
Instead of simply reacting to weather events in real-time, you can be proactive and stay ahead of the storm. Implementing a plan that affects thousands of people can take a long time to put into action. The more time that you have, the safer your event will be.
It is crucial to have lightning forecasts available so that event planners, performers, and attendees know when it’s safe to go outside or if they should seek shelter in a sturdy building instead.
As noted above, in 1998, weather technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Today’s lightning forecasts are much more accurate and able to predict lightning strikes far enough in advance to allow live events and attendees to implement their safety plan.
WeatherOps Live Event Services produces a Weather Risk Report that gives a complete climatological profile for any place worldwide. Learn more about how it can quickly generate a detailed history of observed rain, wind, lightning, and temperature information for an upcoming event or allocate an insurance budget.