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Guest Column - April 2019
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Sports Safety

Weather Warnings
Lightning Alerts for Sports Safety

By Glenn Denny


At high schools and universities throughout the United States, the fall and springtime months are characterized largely by the sports played during those seasons.

In the fall, it's football. Both high school and college-level football are hugely popular and deeply embedded as an important part of American culture.

In the spring, there's baseball, track and field, and golf, to name just a few.

These sports are widely participated in across the country, and they're all played outdoors, for the most part. With all outdoor events, comes the risk of weather-related interference.

In most outdoor sports, rain, snow or mild winds do not pose enough of a threat to the players and spectators for the event to be cancelled. But lightning does pose a serious threat to the safety of everyone in attendance at an outdoor event like a football game.

While it might seem unlikely that lightning would strike on the field or in the stands, it can and does happen, putting everyone in its proximity at risk for serious injury or even death.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that as many as 62 percent of lightning fatalities occur during outdoor organized sports activities. A notable example was after an NFL game in Tampa, Fla., on Dec. 21, 2014. As fans were exiting the stadium, at least seven people were injured by lightning. It's dangerous, and to ignore the threat lightning poses is asking for people to get hurt.

For this reason, high schools and colleges are careful when it comes to lightning activity and sporting events. In fact, at the time this article was written, the first week of college football season had just concluded. In that first week of games, seven were either delayed, postponed or cancelled due to concerns with lightning near the stadiums hosting the games.

The NCAA has rules and guidelines regarding what officials should do in case of lightning, and high schools, amusement parks and other outdoor event locations often adopt these guidelines. The guidelines include having a lightning safety plan that includes:

  • The use of slogans to educate.
  • A designated person to monitor threatening weather and notify those in charge of an athletic site or event.
  • Planned instructions/announcements for participants and spectators.
  • Designated warning and all-clear signals.
  • Proper signage and designation of safe places from the lightning hazard, with regard to the time it takes to evacuate and reach these safer places.
  • Daily monitoring of local weather before any practice or event.
  • A reliable source of information for lightning and severe weather monitoring.

Many venues use a radius of 8 to 10 miles to enact plans and keep them in effect for 30 minutes after both the last sound of thunder and flash of lightning.

When lightning is detected within the venue's designated radius, games are generally postponed until the all-clear signal. The signal is determined by the lightning safety plan being used by the school, and generally is given when lightning has not been detected within a 15-mile radius during the previous 30 minutes. Postponement often works in these cases, as storms with lightning activity can sometimes pass relatively quickly. Other times, cancellation becomes necessary.

Just after the kickoff of one of the seven recent cancelled or postponed football games mentioned (between Nebraska and Akron), an article in the Charlotte Observer reported, "… a Nebraska athletics official ran onto the field to notify officials of lightning within an eight-mile radius of Memorial Stadium. Lightning in the area requires at least a half-hour delay."

The game was put on hold, but fans didn't have to leave, and "… [m]ost fans remained in the stadium watching the Michigan-Notre Dame game on the big screens and dancing to music on the public-address system until a downpour an hour in prompted most to leave."

This downpour led to more severe weather, which meant that "… fans were instructed to leave the stadium and take shelter in designated areas … [and] the game was postponed indefinitely almost three hours after kickoff."

This game typifies the process of calling off an event due to lightning. Proximity of the threat is key, and when the threat doesn't get far enough away, the only answer is to cancel the event and get people to shelter.

Another football game held the same weekend was cancelled after a lengthy delay. While these cancellations are disappointing for all involved, safety should always come first, regardless of the popularity of the game and the commercial interests at stake.

While most schools have, or should have, some kind of lightning safety plan, these plans can be a challenge to follow properly. In the case of lightning activity, the safety of all people in attendance at outdoor events hinged on the all-clear call from a school official, which indicates there is no more lightning in the area.

The challenge to making this call is adequately detecting lightning. At sporting events—especially large events—one cannot count on seeing lightning or hearing thunder to determine when to enact lightning safety plans or make the all-clear announcement. The sound of loud music and crowd noise may muddle thunder, and the view may be obstructed by terrain or the venue itself.

In addition, the activities on-field are likely to distract attention for sporting events that do not have a person dedicated to watching the weather, which means automated alerting becomes even more important. Lightning and storm tracking tools are the best way to safely enact and follow a lightning safety plan.

Advanced weather tracking tools provide the accuracy and reliability that public safety officials can use effectively to monitor weather for outdoor events. For lighting tracking, hundreds of lightning sensors from across the country record lightning electric field waveforms, and from those, the latitude, longitude and heights are recorded. Within seconds, the data is integrated into and displayed on an interactive map using color-coded icons so users can differentiate between different types of lightning.

Just as important is that an all-clear is issued when the nearest lightning is greater than 15 miles from the venue or 30 minutes has elapsed. Lightning sensors can remove the guesswork from the equation, giving officials confidence in their decision to postpone, cancel or resume an outdoor event.

When it comes to safety at school sporting events, advanced tools like storm tracking products can help school safety officials properly and effectively follow their school lightning safety plan, keeping players and fans safe.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glenn Denny is president of Enterprise Solutions for Baron Services Inc., a leading provider of critical weather solutions. For more information, visit www.baronweather.com.