Lightning Guidelines



These guidelines provide a default policy to those responsible or sharing duties for making decisions concerning the suspension and restarting of practices and contests based on the presence of lightning or thunder. The preferred sources from which to request such a policy for your facility would include your state high school activities association and the nearest office of the National Weather Service.


1. Assign staff to monitor local weather conditions before and during practices and contests.

2. Develop an evacuation plan, including identification of appropriate nearby safer areas and determine the amount of time needed to get everyone to a designated safer area:

     a.  A designated safer place is a substantial building with plumbing and wiring where people live or work, such as a school, gymnasium or library. An alternate safer place from the threat of lightning is a fully enclosed (not convertible or soft top) metal car or school bus.

3. Develop criteria for suspension and resumption of play:

     a.   When thunder is heard or lightning is seen*, the leading edge of the thunderstorm is close enough to strike your location with lightning.  Suspend play for at least 30 minutes and vacate the outdoor activity to the previously designated safer location immediately.         

     b.  30-minute rule. Once play has been suspended, wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder is heard or lightning is witnessed* prior to resuming play.

     c.   Any subsequent thunder or lightning* after the beginning of the 30-minute count will reset the clock and another 30-minute count should begin.

     d.   When lightning-detection devices or mobile phone apps are available, this technology could be used to assist in making a decision to suspend play if a lightning strike is noted to be within 10 miles of the event location. However, you should never depend on the reliability of these devices and, thus, hearing thunder or seeing lightning* should always take precedence over information from a mobile app or lightning-detection device.

* – At night, under certain atmospheric conditions, lightning flashes may be seen from distant storms. In these cases, it may be safe to continue an event. If no thunder can be heard and the flashes are low on the horizon, the storm may not pose a threat. Independently verified lightning detection information would help eliminate any uncertainty.

4.  Review the lightning safety policy annually with all administrators, coaches and game personnel and train all personnel.

5.  Inform student-athletes and their parents of the lightning policy at start of the season.


Revised and Approved March 2018

(Source:  NFHS Rule Book)

Additional Resources:

NFHS Lightning Guidelines

CoachSmart App real-time heat index & lightning strikes

Updated 3/2015

Heat Lightning

Q:  I had a coach tell me this week as we kept restarting our 30 minute timer that what we were seeing was "Heat Lightning" and that we should be playing because it was horizontal lightning in the distance and not cloud-to-ground lightning.  Can you tell me the difference between "cloud to ground lightning" and "heat lightning"? 

A: "Heat lightning is a name given to a flash in the night sky that occurs when there is a lightning-producing thunderstorm very far away from the observer. Since the storm is often so far away that the lightning bolt itself isn't observed, and the thunder isn't heard, the flash in the sky has received a special name. "Heat" probably refers to the fact that this kind of display is often observed on a warm humid night, after daytime heating has triggered thunderstorms -- just not near the observer."  (  It is associated with a lightning producing thunderstorm so best advice would error on the side of caution and treat it as regular lightning.

Lightning Safety

Education and prevention are the keys to lightning safety.
Practice and competitions should be immediately suspended as soon as lightning is seen or thunder is heard.
All athletes and spectators should seek shelter during severe weather.
Play should not resume for at least 30 minutes after the last lightning strike or thunderclap.


Lightning is one of the most consistent causes of weather-related deaths in the U.S. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, there are approximately 100 lightning-related deaths and over 1000 injuries yearly.


Lightning-related injuries mainly occur between May and September.  Most lightning casualties happen between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. with the majority of those occurring between 2 p.m and 6 p.m. Therefore, the risk of lightning-related injury appears to be highest during some of the most active periods for outdoor athletic activities.  The average distance between successive lightning flashes is two to three miles which means that risk is present WHENEVER lightning can be seen or thunder can be heard.
Game administrators, officials and the sports medicine staff can be aware of adverse weather by following local forecasts and by monitoring the National Weather Service (NWS).  The NWS issues storm watches and warnings during times of severe weather. A watch means that the conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop, whyle a warning indicates severe weather has been reported and appropriate precautions should be taken.  It must be remembered that any thunderstorm poses a risk of injury, even if not deemed "severe" by the NWS.


As soon as lightning is seen or thunder is heard, practice and competition should be suspended immediately.  A Lightning Safety Plan should be a component of the Emergency Action Plan and should be in place for every sport and facility.  This plan should contain instructions for participants and spectators, designation of safe shelters, and designation of warning and all clear signals.  This plan must be disseminated to the proper personnel and reviewed and practiced on a routine basis.
There should also be a systematic plan for monitoring weather.  The weather forecast should be closely followed throughout the day prior to any practice or competition.  A weather radio is helpful in providing current information.  Weather can also be monitored over the Internet or through the use of lightning strike monitors.  However, such technology should never be a substitute for directly hearing or seeing dangerous weather.  There should also be one person designated to monitor threatening weather and make decisions regarding participation.  However, if anyone hears thunder or sees a lightning strike, appropriate action should begin.
If lightning is imminent or a thunderstorm is approaching, all personnel, athletes, and spectators should be evacuated to safe structures.  A list of the closest safe structures should be announced and displayed on placards at all venues. The ideal  safe structure is a fully enclosed building with plumbing, telephone and electrical service, which aid in grounding the structure.  A fully enclosed automobile or school bus with all the windows rolled up is a reasonable shelter, although care must be taken to avoid contact with any metal inside the vehicle.  The hard metal frame and roof, not the rubber tires, dissipate the current around the vehicle.  Golf carts and convertible cars are not safe shelters.  Dugouts and golf shelters are not safe shelters and are not grounded for the effects of lightning.
Avoid the use of shower facilities and do not use showers or plumbing during a thunderstorm as the electrical current from lightning can enter the building through plumbing connections.  It is also unsafe to stand near utilities or use a landline telephone during a thunderstorm because of the risk of the current traveling through the lines.  Cellular and cordless telephones are considered to be safe.
If a suitable safe shelter is not available, it is best to avoid tall objects (trees, light poles, etc.) that allow lightning an easy path to the ground.  It is important to avoid being the tallest object.  In an open field, people should crouch with their legs together, the weight on the balls of their feet, arms wrapped around their knees, and head down with their ears covered.  The person should minimize contact with the ground and should NOT lie flat.
People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electric charge.  Therefore, it is safe to perform CPR, if needed.  Ideally, injured persons are moved into a safe shelter.  Lightning-strike victims showing signs of cardiac or respiratory arrest need emergency help.

Return to Playing Field

The NFHS recommends following the 30-minute rule when making return-to-play decisions. After the last flash of lightning is witnessed or the last thunderclap is heard, it is recommended to wait at least 30 minutes before resuming practice or competition.  Given the average rate of thunderstorm travel, the storm should move 10 to 12 miles away from the area, reducing the risk of local lightning strike.  Any subsequent lightning strike or thunder after the beginning of the 30-minute count should reset the clock and another count should begin.


In order to prevent lightning-related injuries, it is important to formulate and implement a Lightning Safety Plan and provide adequate education for all athletes and personnel.  The plan needs to be reviewed and practiced periodically.  The plan also must include a systematic approach for monitoring local weather activity and recognizing signs of nearby danger (thunder and lightning strikes). Criteria for suspension and resumption of activity should be clear.  Appropriate safe shelters for each athletic venue should be clearly identified.


Bennett BL. A model lightning safety policy for athletics. Journal of Athletic Training 1997; 32:251-253.
Cooper MA, et al. Lightning injuries. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies. 5th ed. C.V. Mosby, 2007:6-108.
Holle R, Lopez, R. Lightning-impacts and safety. WMO Bulletin 1998;47: 148-155.
National Collegiate Athletic Association. Guideline 1d: Lightning safety. 2010-11 Sports Medicine Handbook (21st edition).
Material from the NFHS Sports Medicine Handbook (4th ed): 37-39

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Wisconsin Interscholastic
Athletic Association
5516 Vern Holmes Drive
Stevens Point, WI 54482-8833
Phone (715) 344-8580
Fax (715) 344-4241
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