Lightning is thrilling to watch, but the safest place to be during an electrical storm is inside your home. But is it dangerous to talk on the phone during a storm and does the same rule apply to mobiles and cordless phones? Leila McKinnon finds out more.
Surprisingly, each year about 80 Australians are injured while using fixed telephones during lightning strikes. Most injuries are minor, but in the United States call centre worker David Smith was one of the unlucky ones. He was on the phone to a caller in distress when: "I felt this hot charged sledgehammer go through my left ear and into my head. Next thing I know is I remember hitting the back wall twenty feet behind me it tossed me out of my chair."
Since then David has suffered almost daily agonising headaches, memory loss, chronic insomnia and dizziness, which is why he walks with a cane.
Leila: How has being struck by lightning affected your life?
David: It's ruined it, 100 percent ruined it.
But just how can someone be struck while on the phone?
Meteorologist Matt Bragaw at the National Weather Service in Florida says lightning is caused when static electricity builds up positive and negative charges. The two opposites attract and when they meet, the resulting bolt really packs a punch.
"They can range anywhere from 5000 amps up to 100,000 amps, anywhere from 30,000 volts of electricity up to a billion volts of electricity," he says.
So what happens when a billion volts travel down your communication lines? Phone lines are designed to carry electricity, but a lightning strike will cause a massive power surge to scream along those lines, through the cables that connect them to your home or office, through the wall socket and down the phone cable in a direct line to your brain.
But what about other things in the home?
Matt's agreed to meet Leila at his place to give us a few safety tips.
First up is one source of danger most of us wouldn't think of: "Water is a very good conductor of electricity. If you are working around the sink or around plumbing fixtures and lightning strikes your house, it could work its way through the plumbing, especially if you have metal pipes, and zap you right through the water," says Matt.
So stay out of the shower when there's lightning about!
Any electrical appliance is a potential danger. Make sure you turn off:
- Your computer
- Your TV
- Hi-fi equipment
All of these items are connected to the power system outside. For the same reason, we know fixed line telephones are off limits, but what about other phones?
"A cordless phone is okay to use because there's no connecting line to the outside. However, if you're going to use one in the middle of a thunderstorm, it's best to stay away from the wall unit," Matt says.
But what about our mobiles?
"Mobile phones are perfectly safe to use inside a thunderstorm because there are no adaptor units, there are no connecting wires all you do is flip it open and speak."
That's a relief! But if you're caught outside during a severe thunderstorm, how should you go about protecting yourself?
Matt's safety tips are:
1. Take shelter
It seems obvious, but the first rule is to take shelter. If you have a car, get in it.
"When lightning hits a conductor like metal it travels along the surface of the conductor and to the ground. It travels away from you. You just have to remember don't touch the radio knobs, don't touch the ignition, the steering wheel's probably not a good thing to touch either," Matt advises.
Unfortunately if you've got a soft-top you're not so safe: "The canvas does not conduct electricity and if it doesn't conduct electricity it's going to be concentrated in one spot and it's going to burn right through."
2. Crouch down
If there is no shelter, then stay away from tall objects and trees. Lightning can still strike you in open ground, but the trick is to offer less of a target.
"You want to crouch down on the balls of your feet, stick your head as low as you can and then cover your ears. Covering your ears is important because if the lightning happens to strike close by the sound of the lightning could deafen you or permanently damage your hearing," says Matt.
Those are the simple safety rules to follow and with approximately 80,000 storms in Australia every year, safety has to be a priority. Get inside whenever possible and if the phone does happen to ring, then let it go to the answering machine.
- Staying inside is best, but how long should you stay under shelter after a storm has passed? It's called the 30/30 rule. If there's less than 30 seconds between the lightning and thunder, take cover and stay there for 30 minutes after the storm has passed. Come out too soon and you still risk a lightning strike.