Lightning does strike twice, and other safety tips from an expert

How to mix lightning storms, tents, and crowds together safely

It’s a title Johannesburg has bestowed upon itself: the Lightning Capital of the World. With numerous incidents occurring every year, MPR knows all the tricks of the trade to avoid getting electrocuted. Expert in marquee positioning and setup Derek de Jongh has been CEO of MPR for 40 years, and has the following advice to give:

“Since day one on the job, safety has always come first. We’ve always proudly maintained the balancing act of ensuring the safety of the set-up staff and guests, while making sure the structure is solid and safe without being a lightning danger. After all one flaw could spell the end of the business or worse – a person’s life.

During the summer months on the Highveld it’s impossible to ignore the fact that lightning is a major concern. It’s a problem we’ve been navigating for 40 years at MPR. Over the decades, we’ve learnt a few tricks of the trade by being on site – and via research (internet).

The first thing we’re always aware of is to choose the location of the tent carefully. While most would be concerned that the tent itself is a lightning magnet with its metal poles, it is simply not true. Height is actually the major factor when it comes to direct lightning strikes. This means we avoid setting up tents in middle of large, wide open spaces (where our tent would be the tallest object) during the summer months.

While it may seem contradictory to say the following, especially in regards to avoiding wide open spaces, we also make sure that the structure isn’t close to tall objects like a large tree. Lightning strikes can cause damage a number of ways – one such is side flashes. A side flash is where the current jumps from a poor conducting object to a person. Wood is a poor conductor compared to a human, so when a tree is struck by lightning the current jumps from the trunk into you (you have more water in you than a tree and water conducts electricity really well). Also trees can explode when directly hit by lightening, which could pose a danger to nearby people.

The purpose of lightning rods is also commonly misunderstood. It’s role is to direct current safely into the ground, not necessarily to attract lightning from other objects. So, in the unlikely event that our structures are struck by lightning, the main poles in our tents are designed with this purpose in mind. Electricity will naturally find the easiest path, and in the case of watery humans versus metal poles conductors – poles win. Which is great news for our guests. We also ensure in high risk venues that we install rubber mats so the charge does spread along the ground.
A lightning storm is always exciting to watch but it is a dangerous event. When large storms do occur we direct our guests to the centre of the structure to minimise unfortunate accidents.

Safety always comes first, no matter the event. After all, no one likes an unexpected shock during a party.