National Lightning Safety Council

Bill Roeder

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, Bill Roeder, to discuss his role in the lightning safety effort.

Q. What is your background or education?

My education is as follows.
     -  B.S. Physics, University of Pittsburg (1980)
     -  B.S. Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University (1981)
     -  M.S. Atmospheric, Sciences, University of Arizona (1986)
I served in the U.S. Air Force from 1980-2021, first as an officer and then as a civil servant. The highpoints of my career were working with the SR-71 (the world's highest fastest airbreathing aircraft) and then working for America's space program. I retired in 2021.

Q. How did you get interested in lightning safety?

I became involved with lightning safety when I learned of the widely divergent views on lightning safety and became fascinated with the impacts of lightning on people at the Lightning Safety Group meeting in 1998. At that time, I realized my experience with the special lightning sensors at Spaceport Florida would allow me to contribute to the topic. Teaching lightning safety became very enriching and I've been at it ever since.

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

I helped start the NOAA Lightning Safety Group in 2000. When John Jensenius retired from NOAA, he continued his passion for lightning safety and formed the National Lightning Safety Council. I continued my efforts on lightning safety education with that Council.

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?

Lightning is one of the oldest of the meteorological sciences but still one of the least understood. There is so much we don't understand about lightning. For example, it's only in the past few decades or so that we've learned how far lightning can strike. First, how far the flash can travel from its starting point, then how far strokes within the flash can travel from where the flash first reached the ground, and more recently how far multiple contacts within the stroke can travel.

The future of lightning safety is two-fold. First is the challenge of developing lightning safety guidance for developing countries where not everyone has access to safe locations from lightning and communicating those guidelines effectively. The second challenge is improving lightning safety education in developed countries. In the U.S. significant progress was made in reducing lightning deaths after national lightning safety education campaigns began in 2001. However, more recently the death rate seems to have to have flattened. Can a different education approach push the death rate even lower? If that cannot be done, is a different education approach better to maintain the increased level of lightning safety awareness that has been achieved? We've pushed lightning from the second leading cause of storm deaths in the U.S. to a distant fourth place. Can we do better?

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?

I have recently completed research with the Air Force Institute of Technology to optimize lightning warning distances. The results show that at Spaceport Florida the warning distance that has been used for decades can be reduced for significant reduction in time spent under warnings with only inconsequential increased risk. Further research is now needed to see if the results can be applied elsewhere. How does the optimum lightning warning distance change with detection efficiency of the lightning location system being used, especially for lightning aloft? What if you only have good cloud-to-ground lightning data? Do the results change for different locations, seasons, and types of lightning?

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

Lightning safety is easy, quick, and inexpensive in developed countries with ready access to locations safe from lightning. But it is inconvenient, so you have to be diligent in following the guidelines all the time. The lightning safety guidelines can be summarized by just 27 words in the lightning safety slogans.

      - NO Place is Safe When Thunderstorms are in the Area!
      - When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
      - Half an Hour After Thunder Roars, Now it's Safe to go Outdoors!