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 ~ National Lightning Safety Institute ~

Section 6.1.12

A Brief History of Lightning Safety in the U.S.*

By Richard Kithil, President & CEO, NLSI

The British lightning code was sourced by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 1903 to become the first U.S. lightning protection document, updated and known today as NFPA-780, “Recommended Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems.” Accurate statistics about lightning deaths and injuries, as well as cost of damages to facilities, were not well kept until the 1990s. Historical research on the subject indicates much science then was devoted to lightning phenomenology, including atmospheric physics and general meteorology investigations. Lightning safety issues were not well publicized nor studied.

Looking back on the early days of lightning safety information, notable is the seminal work edited by R.H. Golde called “Lightning.” Published in two volumes by Academic Press in 1977, it received little attention outside the research community. It contained a contributory paper by University of Manchester (U.K.) Professor W.R. Lee entitled “Lightning Injuries and Deaths.”

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, organizations and peer-reviewed technical papers began to appear. Some examples include:

  • Establishment of the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International (LSESSI), a victim support group under the administration of S. Marshburn and with professional medical direction from Dr. M.A. Cooper. For more information, see the website: www.lightning-strike.org
  • Cherington M, Vervalin C, 1990. “Lightning Injuries – Who is at Risk?” Physician and Sports Medicine, No. 18.
  • Holle, R.L., Lopez R. et al., 1992. “Cloud-to-ground lightning related to deaths, injuries and property damage in Central Florida,” International Conference on Lightning and Static Electricity, FAA Report No. DOT/FAA/CT-92/20.

Cooper, Cherington, Holle, and Lopez became prolific authors and central leadership figures, broadcasting the lightning safety message for some 15 years. In 1992 the Denver Colorado St. Anthony’s Hospital Lightning Data Center was formed under the aegis of Dr. M. Cherington, R. Holle, R. Larson, and others. That organization survives today and can be accessed via the Home Page Search Engine at: www.stanthonyhosp.org

Books and magazine articles on lightning safety began to emerge quickly. One of the earliest books was Lightning Protection for People and Property, authored by M. Frydenlund (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-442-01338-8). The information contained in this out-of-print book is still valid today.

Lightning safety issues sometimes were discussed in various journals and papers given at conferences, such as the European International Conference on Lightning Protection (ICLP), the U.S. International Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the International Conference on Lightning and Static Electricity (today known as ICAE), and others. For the most part, however, the subject was confined to academia and similar narrow audiences. The emergence of the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI) in 1994 coincided with rapid expansion of the Internet and email correspondence. Suddenly audience interest spread quickly from academia to safety organizations to those groups needing subject matter information. Interested parties from the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, national, state and local recreation organizations, commercial airports, military services, colleges and universities, and so on could obtain objective assistance at low cost or no cost with the flash of a keyboard message through cyberspace.

In 1997-1998, B. Bennett from the University of Virginia and K. Walsh from Eastern Carolina University advocated lightning safety guidelines for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA). These agencies require their members to adhere to the safety protocols outlined in their operating manuals. In 1998 the American Meteorological Society’s ad hoc Lightning Safety Committee promoted fundamental recommendations that have gained national recognition.

The U.S. federal government under the Weather Service began sponsoring National Lightning Safety Awareness Week (LSAW) in 2002. Publicity here reached new audiences across the country. The LSAW program can be reviewed at: www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.

During the period from 1950 to the present, recorded annual lightning incidents to people have been reduced by approximately two-thirds, from the lower 100s to the middle 30s. In part, this is a result of a more urban and less rural population. In part, it is due to the stochastic annual distribution of lightning across the USA. And, safety groups like to claim, it is in part due to increased awareness and education of the general population.

While lightning deaths and injuries are descending, costs and losses to the commercial and industrial sectors of the country are increasing. This is due to the rapid installation and use of low-voltage, semiconductor, silicon-based computers and other instrumentation upon which our economic culture has become dependent. Present day con$equence$ from lightning are estimated at $5 to $6 billion yearly. As with personal safety issues, the key to protecting economic assets is education about the essentials of risk reduction and protection of assets.


*With apologies to those omitted.


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