National Lightning Safety Council

Katie Flanagan

The National Lightning Safety Council is working to shine a spotlight on the lightning hazard and expand its mission to promote lightning safety awareness. This month the Council connected with member, Katie Flanagan, to discuss her role in the lightning safety effort.

Q. What is your background or education?

I graduated from Oregon State University with a Bachelor of Science, Illinois State University with a master of science in Sports Medicine; and the University of Southern California with a doctorate of education (EdD). I am a nationally certified and state licensed athletic trainer (AT), providing health care to athletes (in on-field emergencies, as well as acute and chronic orthopedic and medical conditions impacting athletes). As a professor and the Director of Sports Medicine at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina, I teach students various aspects of athletic training and sports medicine. Lucky for me, I get to still be an AT and work on the field for the ECU football team, which I have done since arriving to ECU in 1995. My work as an AT have taken me all over the world with US Soccer, the Pan American Games and Olympics. My research is in the field of safety policy, most notably, environmental safety in sports. For the past five years, I have been one of the 10 members of the Board of Directors of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association which is the membership organization for the 50,000 ATs worldwide.

Q. How did you get interested in lightning safety?

I work at East Carolina University, a public institution of 30,000 in North Carolina. We are a research institution, and must do research and publish to earn tenure. During my first year at ECU, I was looking at a poster in my office of lightning hitting Half Dome (a rock formation in Yosemite, CA in my home state) and realized I knew very little about lighting safety. A fellow athletic trainer at William and Mary (VA) brought me in on an article he was writing on lightning safety (which was 25 years ago) and the rest is history

Q. How did you get involved with the National Lightning Safety Council?

It was my great fortune to meet and be welcomed by Dr. Mary Ann Cooper and Ron Holle at my first International Lightning Conference talk on lightning safety (in Arizona) in 1996. We formed a friendship that has grown and prospered over the years, and jointly published papers with other weather experts that forever altered lightning safety in sports at every level

Q. What do you see in the future regarding the study of lightning? What do you think is moving the cause of lightning safety and lightning safety awareness forward?

I am ever hopeful the public will become savvier, and the technology better, to accurately indicate where lightning activity is in relation to an individual. That way, people have the best information to move to safer indoor areas. With our current technology, most individuals think any smartphone app will alert and protect them, but that is often misleading

Q. Can you tell us about a specific project you are working on or are passionate about in the study of lightning or the lightning safety awareness movement?

Pre-COVID, I gathered data that was in public media (news articles, etc.) on high school and college football games impacted (delayed, stopped, cancelled) by lightning. Ron Holle worked with that data set and was able to track the major storms in those regions for the specified time periods. I want to use those and more current data to have real-time information on the time it takes to evacuate large stadiums from the threat of lightning. In our lightning safety for sports papers, we only have computer models estimating the time it takes to leave stadiums, but real, practical data will be a huge indicator for people who plan large events, and can be translated beyond lightning safety.

Q. Do you have any other comments or words of wisdom for readers?

Be aware of your surroundings, and be proactive in knowing the predicted weather. Outdoor enthusiasts as well as weekend hikers must learn to be extremely mindful of signs of impending thunderstorms, as well as exactly what to do and where to go. ###