A Healthy Fear of Lightning

I was on duty when a monsoon hit, killing the power grid and filling the arroyos with flash floods. It was to be a night of adventures and scares

Dave Smith Headshot

Illustration: Sequoia BlankenshipIllustration: Sequoia Blankenship

I have always had a healthy respect for lightning. Growing up in the mountains of Arizona where the monsoons always brought a chance of some intense damn electrical storms, my first reflex as a kid was to run for the trees. Standing under a beautiful Ponderosa Pine that reached for the sky seemed like the safest refuge a young lad might find … until … one of my classmates' dads who was a forest ranger spoke at career day and, luckily, decided to expound on the dangers of lightning in the forest. A few war stories were all it took to scare the daylights out of me and forever guide me to find greater safety in a storm.

Needless to say, I brought all my youthful fears with me into my career as a crime fighter and, while my training taught me all about the dangers lurking in so many areas of this wonderful profession, I must confess that the scariest moment of my rookie year was not from one of the many threats I had been taught about in the academy. It was my youthful nemesis … lightning!

We were working late swings when a monsoon's monsoon hit the Tucson valley, killing the power grid and filling the arroyos with flash floods and the streets with flowing streams. It was to be a night of adventures and scares as JW, Sam, and I raced from gas leaks, to terrible accidents, to silent alarm after silent alarm triggered by the high winds and rain. But it was the first mundane assignment of the night that scared the living daylights out of me … point control at a major intersection in town.

Any time an officer is on foot on an active roadway, the risk is intense; but to be at a major intersection, trying to direct multiple lanes of traffic, with night falling and no power, was damned exciting. And then came the next wave of storm cells, and a lightning display that shook the ground like an artillery barrage on D-Day. A dozen-plus times lightning flashed, and the "BOOM" of thunder smacked me less than a second later, making this little rookie glad we wore navy blue pants.

It was 15 intense minutes of pure terror, and my prayers were finally answered as the flashes and booms got farther and farther apart. After I was relieved by a couple of guys from another squad, I cleared and was immediately sent to a silent alarm. Finally, a threat I was trained for, and had no deep subliminal fear of.

All this came back to me recently when JW and I were talking about that wonderful, terrible, exciting night all those years ago. Nature can give a warrior one wild ride, and we reminisced about how lucky we were to have lived and worked in Arizona. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes put law enforcement at great risk as we protect and help our communities, but these are rare in the Southwest.

I remember doing a live show on the Law Enforcement Television Network while a hurricane smashed into Louisiana. A heroic officer was live on his phone from the eye of the storm as it hit his downtown business section. He was there to protect the businesses and the few people remaining behind, and as his car shook and the wind whined at a strange pitch he calmly described the top of a gas station tumbling down the street … stud!

Each of you will get a chance to experience the various risks we face from the evils of human nature, but you must remember to not get too cocky about the threats from Mother Nature. From ice storms to tornadoes to a good old fashioned "gully washer," every part of this wonderful country has it own unique threats that we must never take for granted. I have interviewed heroes from Moore, OK, and Joplin, MO, who forever carry the horrors of an F-5 tornado; their communities will never forget the efforts, tears, and victories of these first responders. As so often happens, from tragedy comes the greatest examples of the heroic.

I wish you safe travels in your adventures in crime fighting, and remember: whenever you face a threat from man or nature, follow your training, have faith in your skills, and … never, ever, ever stand under a tree in a lightning storm!

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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