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 ~ National Lightning Safety Institute ~

Section 5.1.12

Lightning and Risk Management

by Bill Coffin
Originally published in Risk and Insurance Management Society Magazine,
Vol. 49, Issue 11, Nov. 1, 2002
Republished here with permission

July 10, 1926. Just another day at Picatinny, New Jersey's Lake Denmark Powder Depot until lightning struck within the facility. The bolt detonated adjacent gunpowder magazines, killing nineteen people and propelling debris for miles in all directions. By the time the smoke cleared, the damage totaled $70 million (in 2002 dollars).

Thankfully, lightning never strikes twice, right? Wrong, says Richard Kithil, president and CEO of the Louisville, Colorado-based National Lightning Safety Institute. For example, in 1994, a lightning strike at the Milford Haven, United Kingdom Texaco Refinery caused a fire and explosion that destroyed much of the facility and caused more than $60 million in damage.

"Lightning is a capricious, random and unpredictable event," Kithil says. Although most lightning strikes are not as dramatic as those that hit Picatinny or Milford Haven, he says, at any given moment, lightning is striking the earth in ten different places. Each year, the number of lightning-related deaths and injuries in the U.S. outnumbers those from tornadoes and hurricanes combined. And, lightning is to blame for $5 billion to $6 billion in largely insured property damage.

In developing his presentation for the 17th International Lightning Detection Conference, which was scheduled for last month, Kithil outlined some of the challenges risk managers face when dealing with one of Mother Nature's most uncertain forces.

Damage to property—especially for aircraft, large industrial or commercial facilities, and the petroleum, explosives manufacturing and defense industries—is a grave threat. Kithil says the amount of damage lightning does to these targets is growing because more lightning-sensitive equipment (anything containing low-voltage microprocessors) is being used.

There are two main elements to lightning risk management, Kithil says: detection and prevention. "In almost all cases, detectors play a useful role," he says, citing the Denver airport as an example. There, detection is an integral part of protecting the fourteen hundred baggage handlers who work outside. The moment lightning gets within five miles of the airport, all handlers are brought inside until the danger passes. Additional risk management efforts include the use of conventional lightning rods and overhead shield wires and mast systems. Downconductors direct electrical energy directly to the earth instead of into the structure. Bonding assures that all unrelated conductive objects on the building are at the same electrical potential by connecting them to the same ground. And grounding directs lightning into the earth to prevent it from flashing out horizontally into the structure.

So far, no universal lightning risk management code exists. The closest candidate is the International Electrotechnical Commission IEC 61024, which Kithil says is the "single best reference document for the lightning protection engineer." He adds that there are a number of different lightning codes that risk managers can consult. The various arms of the U.S. military have developed numerous lightning safety codes, such as MIL HDBK 419A, Navy NAVSEA OP5 MIL STD 188-124B, MIL STD 1542B, MIL B 5087B, DoD UFC 3-570-01, Army 385-64 and Air Force AFI 32-1064. Other helpful codes include U.S. Department of Energy 2002 DOE 440.1 and British Code BS 6551.

Despite best efforts, however, lightning keeps its own agenda and may defeat the detection and protective measures deployed against it. But, Kithil says, a holistic or systematic hazard mitigation approach can substantially lower the risk.

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