Be well. Practice big medicine.

Newman | The Positive Paramedic Project #24 Learn the local rules

A nugget of EMS organizational wisdom every day. #24 Learn the local rules – wherever your travels may take you.

I have often been referred to as a ‘human lightning rod’ because of a tendency to be the connector of dots at the center of turbulence.

I beg to differ. I am the lightning man.

I have been tracking severe thunderstorms for as long as I can remember. My family and friends benefit from my obsession with superheated air in the receipt of timely emailed reminders to bring in the lawn furniture and small pets.

Camping with my family a few summers ago in south-central Quebec, just north of the border with Maine, I watched the sky as the clouds began showing signs of aspiring to develop a majestic soundtrack and an accompanying lightshow. Of course, the weather forecast was calling for just a slight chance of rain but I was fairly convinced we were going to see some big-time lightning by nightfall.

We had a wonderful day on, in, or near the lake and Di and the kids were playing Blokus on the picnic table by lantern light when that little lightning detector in my head started pinging. I wandered down to the lake and looked out to the horizon. Nothing seemed particularly threatening out there and I thought perhaps the clean country air had messed with my inner tracking systems.


A few seconds later there was a massive display of forked lightning that ripped across the far skies. I tried to calculate distance but with no discernible cloud line and no ripple of thunder it was a guess at best. I figured we had about a half an hour before this storm was overhead.

So I began wandering around the campsite picking up all of the items that could become projectiles in a high wind. I took great pains not to alert the girls but I was definitely trying to get Di’s attention that something wicked this way cometh. No such luck. They were eating banana boats cooked in the fire and still completely engrossed in their puzzle game on the picnic table.

It wasn’t until the storm was about five miles out and there was a blast of lightning bright enough to capture their attention that the rest of our camping party worked out it was time to batten down the hatches.

As I’ve told this story since, I imagine the scene as the medical examiner investigated the scene of the worst multiple lightning fatality on a campground in years. “I just don’t understand. What do you suppose was so damned important on that picnic table? It’s not like they didn’t have lots of warning.”

Of course, being the lightning man means knowing the local weather rules.

We live in the southernmost part of Quebec where it gets together with Vermont not far from New Hampshire and only a couple of hours up the road from Maine. Apart from sudden dumps of snow and mid-winter temperatures that can, literally, freeze the nuts off a bridge, this isn’t known as severe weather territory.

While the mere mention of the word ‘ice storm’ strikes fear into every Quebecois’ heart, tornadoes, on the other hand, are something we watch on Discovery or TLC – they’re wild and exotic and until one of them actually smacks into a building or community of substance, it will be difficult to sway that notion.

Up until recently, the usual number of funnel clouds, tornadoes and waterspouts spotted in Quebec during the course of a summer could be counted on one hand. That’s slowly changing as the number of severe thunderstorms seems to be on the increase. We’ve even found ourselves the subject of tornado watches and warnings a few times already this season.

That being said, we are blissfully unaware of the real dangers posed by tornadoes. Each time one has been confirmed there have been no injuries and minimal damage reported – except, perhaps, in a hyper-localized area where the tornado crossed paths with structures.

Which brings me back to Missouri once again.

I flew into St Louis and rented a car. Plugged my iPod into the aux input on the sound system, cranked up the tunes, and headed west on Interstate 70. I had made the trip several times before and had never found a local radio station that I could listen to for the entire trip so it was great having my own playlists along for the ride.

The weather was typical mid-summer Missouri – hot, humid and hazy. The horizon was obscured in the haze although as I drove further west there seemed to be darkening going on out there somewhere up ahead. By the time I arrived at my destination, the skies were roiling and ominous – and the little lightning detector in my head was beginning to fire up.

As I pulled my stuff out of the trunk, I took note of a few things – the local emergency services must’ve been having one very busy afternoon because all I could hear in the background was the wail of sirens, no one was around in the lobby of the hotel, and the clouds had a distinct deep green look to them. I figured there were all the makings of a serious thunderstorm.

Unable to find anyone to ask permission of in the lobby, I swiped one of the chairs from the bar and took it out to the parking lot to watch the developing storm. The sirens continued to wail in the background with the deep rumble of thunder getting louder. About five minutes later, another car – with plates from back East – pulled into the lot. The two men who got out were also taken by the light and sound show and stayed out with me in the parking lot watching the gathering storm march toward us across the farm fields. I told them there must have been a staff meeting going on because there was no one in the lobby.

Right about then, two things happened almost simultaneously. The sirens that had been wailing in the background began wailing in the foreground and while there was a hint of recognition that this was not a good thing, that perception was confirmed by the sudden appearance of one of the hotel staff who said, “If you gentlemen are done watching the tornado coming, would you be so kind as to join the rest of us in the shelter?”

Things that make you say, “I really should have learned the local weather rules.”

In all the time I have been following lightning, it never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, lightning was tracking me.

Be well. Practice big medicine.






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