LIGHTENING PHONE

REPORTER: DAMIEN HANSEN.

They're as deadly as they are spectacular and in Australia alone, at least five people every year will die after being struck by lightning -- on top of that another hundred each year are injured. "There were burns in my ear… I could be dead", said Ray McDonnell, who can't remember being struck by lightning.

"I remember waking up in the hospital about a quarter to three in the morning", he added. But it's something his wife Rebecca will never forget. "It was very frightening, very frightening indeed. I mean he is lucky to be still alive", she said. But luck, say the McDonnell's shouldn't have played a part. They question whether Telstra has done enough to protect their phone line from lightning strikes. "This is the earth strap here that should have been connected um Telstra have connected it today and I just wonder if that could have contributed to something worse happening to me."

Ray gave little thought to a passing electrical storm when he picked up the phone when it rang at dinner time. He knew the dangers but never thought it could happen to him. "I have never heard of someone being electrocuted as such, so the next thing the phone actually threw off the bench out of its socket and there was a really strong burning smell. I had burns down the side of my neck, under my arm and on my chest -- there were burns in my ear as well. I was just in shock I had no idea that could happen while you were on the phone" said Ray.

Around 30 people a year suffer from lightning strike injuries, received through telephones. "The currents aren't very large, but it's delivered to the ear and quite a small current can cause injury", said Professor Mat Darveniza. Professor Darveniza is recognised as a world leader in high voltage engineering and lightning protection. "The average lightning current is about 30,000 amps. What is delivered through a phone, is only a few hundred amps. Seems small but it's delivered at a rather sensitive part of the body", he explained.

There are home phones more vulnerable to lightning strikes than others. "In the areas where Telstra knows there's a risk because they've had damage to their equipment or because that data says there is a high lightning area. They can fit surg protection on the telephone, but they only do that in the areas where they consider there to be a finite risk", Professor Darveniza said.The McDonnell's believe their home on Queensland's Sunshine Coast is one

such area. "The highest lightning areas are the Kimberley and Darwin, anywhere near the tropics. Further south it comes round Brisbane the number of days a year when a thunderstorm are about 30 to 35 in Darwin it's about 90 to a hundred. So the closer you are to the tropics, the more likely it is to happen", said Professor Daveniza.

The McDonnell's are convinced the lightning protection they had fitted to their home was ineffective, their earth strap wasn't properly attached and there was water in the line. But the Telstra workers investigating Ray's accident maintain the strike had nothing to do with the condition of the telephone line, adding lightning protection doesn't guarantee immunity from lightning strikes.

A Telstra spokesperson reiterated the investigators stance and say they are working with the customer and investigating the circumstances of this case. Furthermore it makes information on the potential dangers of lightning available to customers in the yellow pages and on telstra.com.From now on the McDonnell's will heed the warnings. "It is certainly not an old wives tail, listen to your mum" says Ray.