WILDWOOD CREST - A recent Berkeley Township tragedy, where a lifeguard died after being struck by lightning, caused some residents to question the use of aluminum lifeguard stands in Spout Off.
However, local beach patrol leaders claim the stands are a “huge improvement” over wooden stands, while weather experts note that the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike are height, pointy shape, and isolation.
“It was an unfortunate accident,” Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol Chief Bud Johnson said, regarding the Berkeley Township accident. “A real tragedy."
“Accidents happen, unfortunately, but metals do not attract lightning,” he continued. “I’m a firm believer in the aluminum chairs; our guards love them, and they are a huge improvement over the wooden stands because they are maintenance-free, lightweight, and have wheels on them, so they are easy to move."
“People need to do the research about lightning,” he added. “We’ve been purchasing the aluminum chairs for about the past eight years now. We have 30 in total; up to 28 chairs are used during the prime season. I did the research and would never have anything that would put our guards in danger.”
The odds of being struck by lightning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) is 1 in 1,222,000.
There have been 10 fatalities, so far, this year nationwide, two of which occurred in New Jersey.
Of the 10 fatalities, two were on a golf course, five were on the beach, one was on a hiking trail, one was on a construction site, and one was on a roof. One was a 15-year-old female, who was in the water at the time; the others were all males.
Johnson, who has been a lifeguard for 56 years and chief for 48, said Wildwood Crest began using aluminum chairs over the years when they started hiring more females because they were lightweight and easy to move.
“It’s the highest point that attracts lightning,” he said. “We have a three-page lightning policy that basically says we get off the stand if we see or hear thunder or lightning, and then we go from there. We clear the water. If there are no more lightning strikes within 30 minutes, we can go back in. If there is activity, then we are out."
“Everyone has umbrellas, and they have aluminum poles,” he added. “Do you think they would make umbrella poles aluminum if they attracted lightning? The first thing you do is pull it down because it could be the highest point on the beach.”
The aluminum lifeguard stands are made by a Cape May business specializing in aluminum welding and fabrication. Efforts to reach the business owner were unsuccessful.
One of the “myths” about lightning, according to NOAA's NWS, is that structures with metal, or metal on the body, i.e., jewelry, cell phones, MP3 players, watches, etc., attract lightning.
According to NOAA's website, height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike.
“The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes,” according to NOAA. “Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter. Don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it, so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.”
Another myth, NOAA says, is that rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.
“Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, not the rubber tires," NOAA says. "Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open shelled outdoor recreational vehicles, and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don't lean on doors during a thunderstorm.”
Wildwood Crest is not the only Cape May County beach using aluminum lifeguard stands. This was the fourth summer that Stone Harbor’s stands were aluminum and Sea Isle City’s 10th year they have had all-aluminum lifeguard stands.
“We wanted to reduce back injuries because they are lighter than wood and easier to move,” Stone Harbor Beach Patrol Capt. Sandy Bosacco said. He has been a lifeguard for 38 years, and 25 as captain.
“We have been successful in reducing injuries,” he pointed out. “Wooden stands require painting every year and have to be repaired. The aluminum chairs cost a little bit more initially, but over time, they pay for themselves. We’ve had a lot of success with the aluminum chairs.”
Bosacco also debunked the myth that metal attracts lightning, adding, “I think a wooden tree is the most common item struck by lightning. In fact, a couple of years ago, a wooden lifeguard stand was hit by lightning in Cape May. It can happen anytime."
“We make sure we don’t have people out on the beach when there is lightning,” he stressed. “We want everyone in a safe location. We are always reviewing our standards with borough officials to make sure we are doing what is right.”
Sea Isle City’s Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele also said that the maintenance-free aspect of the aluminum stands was a driving factor when they bought them about 10 years ago.
“We store them outside during the winter,” he added, "and they are ready to go in the spring. No rusting of bolts and screws like there was with wood."
“We also were trying to reduce injuries in the guard’s necks and backs and since they are very lightweight, our injuries are non-existent,” he added.
Sea Isle City’s lifeguard station has a weather station and lightning detector on its roof to help the guards keep the beaches safe. Steele also said they follow a lightning protocol that is based on what is happening where there is lightning, as the weather can differ between the south and north end of their beaches.
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