Weather Threats in the Field
COMPILED BY THE RISK MANAGEMENT STAFF
Soldiers must be prepared for any threat they might encounter in the field. With the arrival of the spring and summer months, they can expect to see a variety of weather-related risks in their training and operational environments. One of the most common weather events encountered in the field is thunderstorms, which can include hazards such as lightning, flash floods and tornadoes. Let’s take a quick look at each of these hazards individually. Lightning
Over the past decade, dozens of Soldiers were injured by lightning strikes. One Soldier died when a tree fell on him after it was struck by lightning, while another Soldier suffered a permanent total disability in a separate incident. Many of these lightning strike injuries occurred during two events just a week apart in August 2015. In the first, Soldiers were injured as the platoon was executing lightning lockdown procedures. In the second incident, lightning struck a tree in the troop tactical operations center, injuring several Soldiers. Additionally, lightning strikes caused millions of dollars in damage to Army aircraft, vehicles and other equipment.
If you’re caught outside in a thunderstorm with lightning, seek shelter in a sturdy structure or hardtop vehicle. If you find yourself in a vehicle, sit with your hands in your lap. If possible, shut off electronic communications equipment when lightning is in the area and don’t use it unless absolutely necessary. If you’re inside a building equipped with a telephone, don’t use it either. Avoid large pieces of metal equipment, and make risk decisions concerning vehicles loaded with various types of explosives or ammunition. Explosive items and ammunition have varying fragmentation distances, which should be considered in mission planning. Keep this in mind when making the decision on how far to clear away.
When caught in the open with no place to go, ensure you’re not close to tall trees or structures that are the highest points in the area. In wooded areas, seek shelter under a thick growth of small trees. Avoid tall objects, isolated trees, bodies of water, sheds and fences. If you are part of a group, spread out and squat down in an attempt to keep as low a profile as possible while keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground. You want to minimize your body’s surface area contact with the ground, so never sit or lie down. The tactical situation dictates other types of mitigation. For instance, radio operators should take down long whip antennas to help create a low profile.
Fighting positions create a unique point of interest. During lightning storms, make sure you’re not leaning or resting your body on the inside of the hole. Center yourself and remain alert until the storm passes. A properly constructed fighting position will provide you with overhead cover from hail and high winds, and you’ll have the lowest profile possible.
Keep in mind lightning can strike even after a thunderstorm has passed. It’s best to wait about 30 minutes after the weather passes to resume activities. A general rule of thumb in estimating the hazard area for lightning strikes is flash-to-bang time. If you see lightning, begin counting seconds. If you hear thunder within 30 seconds, you’re in a hazard area. If your hair begins to stand on end, squat down immediately and place your hands on your knees with your head between your legs. Flash floods
Flash floods are most often caused by extremely heavy rainfall from thunderstorms. In 2016, eight Soldiers and a West Point cadet lost their lives when their Light Medium Tactical Vehicle was swept away while attempting to traverse a flooded creek during training. Prior to the mishap, the training area received a significant amount of rainfall over a short period of time.
When selecting operational sites, stay clear of low-lying areas, dry riverbeds, flood plains and canyons. If you’re caught outside in a flash flood, move to higher ground immediately. Avoid rivers, streams and low spots. Don’t try to walk through flowing water higher than ankle deep and never attempt to drive through flooded areas. Underwater hazards aren’t visible, and water more than 1 foot deep can easily displace 1,500 pounds. Just 2 feet of water will move or carry most automobiles. Tornadoes
Tornadoes are violent atmospheric storms with rotating winds ranging from 200 to 300 mph in the most severe cases. If you or your unit is caught in the field when a tornado hits, follow these guidelines:
- Seek shelter in a substantial structure and go to the basement or an interior room.
- Avoid trailers or vehicles.
- Never attempt to outrun a tornado in a vehicle; instead, abandon it immediately.
If no shelter is available and you’re caught in a convoy, dismount your vehicle and lie flat in the nearest ditch or depression. Be sure to secure your Kevlar helmet and other protective items to prevent injury from flying debris. In a defensive position or base camp, a properly constructed fighting position will place you below the ground with overhead cover if suitable structures aren’t available. What else can you do?
Whether you’re in the field or in garrison, the best method for maintaining environmental situational awareness is to monitor weather reports. This usually is accomplished in the field via the chain of command and tactical operations centers receiving routine weather data as part of operations. However, if the National Weather Service has deemed weather severe enough to put out a watch or warning, then your chain of command usually will provide more guidance on unit actions. If you don’t have access to immediate weather data, you can rely on your own judgment and still take appropriate measures to prevent or limit the risk to you and your Soldiers.
These are just a few general tips. Depending on your particular circumstances, you might want to conduct further research into what you can do as a leader when faced with changing weather that might affect mission outcome.