Tarping: How to Keep Your Sports Turf Crew Safe
By Jeff Salmond, CSFM
Sports turf management is an exciting field with many challenges and obstacles. A critical component of any athletic field manager' job is maintaining the safety of the sports turf crew. Dealing with unpredictable weather—such as summer storms, winter hail and torrential rainstorms—is a continual challenge for grounds crews.
With short notice, it's important your employees are safe while performing their duty to protect the field. It's not fun to hear about tarping debacles making the evening sports highlight reels. Field managers are too often put in tough positions for the love of the game.
Plastic tarps are a crucial weapon to combat Mother Nature and shield our fields from water or wind damage. The process of tarping a field is truly an art and requires a team effort from the entire staff.
The Role of Communication
Communication plays a large role when tarping a field.
Eric Fasbender, assistant director of Athletic Facilities & Grounds at Louisiana State University (LSU) Athletics and member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), constantly monitors the hourly, 15-day forecast and radar through the DTN Weather Sentry service. On non-game days, he updates coaches daily at 9 a.m., noon and at the beginning of practice.
On game days, Fasbender's staff maintains close communication with LSU Event Management personnel and the head coach for the respective sport to assist in monitoring inclement weather and to collaborate with decision making.
"Whether it's a home baseball, football or soccer game, the open line of communication makes sure all interested parties are in the loop and able to assist with the final decision on proceeding with the event or closing the field," Fasbender said. "After ensuring all communication channels have a clear and concise message, we begin the tarping process."
The first step is folding. When doing so, Fasbender folds each tarp accordion style for easy deployment. If there is water on the tarp, he recommends dumping it off as they fold, as it can be very heavy to lift. It also saves his team substantial time as they are combining two steps into one.
In college athletics, NCAA's inclement weather policy states that when lightning strikes eight miles from the field, the game must be suspended.
"Although we will always stop the game with lightning eight miles away, we sometimes pull the tarp when it's 10 to 12 miles out in anticipation to increase the safety of our crew and players," said Nick McKenna, athletic fields foreman at Texas A&M University and a member of the STMA. "Safety is paramount to Texas A&M and its coaches, players and staff."
McKenna also noted that constant communication with coaches is key to ensure all parties are on the same page. It's always better to err on the side of caution.
Dealing with Mother Nature
Tarping with snow in the forecast requires different field protocol. According to STMA member Tony Leonard, director of grounds at Lincoln Financial Field for the Philadelphia Eagles, his crew will paint the field prior to tarping. During the winter season, the grass is not growing in the Northeast so painting a few days in advance of a game is not an issue.
Once the paint dries, his team installs the tarp and weighs it down with sand bags and equipment, if necessary.
Weather and wind are also two factors to consider when tarping a natural grass surface. Policies and rules vary from professional teams to college programs when dealing with these challenges.
For example, according to Leonard, tarping rules for the NFL mandate covering 24 hours prior to kick-off if any precipitation is forecasted.
"If we feel the temperatures and humidity are too high that it would cause more harm than good, we can relay that to the League Office for permission not to tarp," Leonard said. "We tarp for rainfall on a case-by-case basis depending on time of year, moisture content in the field, amount of rain forecasted, timing of rain and atmospheric conditions."
To help the grass grow through any tarping events, Leonard sprays fungicides to prevent disease in the event his team has to tarp, especially early in the season.
Tarp Installation and Removal
An important factor to remember is that tarps are heavy; the more crew members helping to remove a tarp, usually the better. Some tarps are heavier than others based on the materials they are made from.
Many field managers will use stakes and bags, parking carts and other heavier equipment on the tarp to ensure that the tarp will stay down should high winds occur. There isn't a worse feeling than leaving a tarp down and secure and coming in the next morning to see all your hard work and preparation thwarted because the tarp blew off and the field is wet.
When a tarp is pulled onto the field, TV spectators and event attendees are immediately drawn to its color, although it also has a scientific benefit to natural grass surfaces.
Studies conducted at Virginia Tech have shown lighter colored tarps (yellow, orange, red, white) had a better growth effect on the field grass in spring. Inversely, dark colors (black, blue, greens) had a stronger impact in fall.
In the spring, light is more important, thus these colored tarps promote light wavelengths reflecting off the surface. In the fall, it's more important to monitor soil temperatures, so darker tarps help to regulate this.
Various NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, have implemented seasonal color strategies into their tarping protocol—silver on one side, black on the other. The silver side goes up through October then the turf management team reverses the tarp through the end of the season.
Minor League Baseball
In Minor League Baseball, staff sizes are limited, so often it's not possible for the sports turf team to roll out tarp without the help of other departments. Sports turf managers sometimes even train front office staff on how to roll tarp, which provides insight into the day-to-day role of a sports turf manager.
"Tarping is truly a team effort in Minor League Baseball," said Corey Russell, director of sports turf management at the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and STMA member. "Not only does my team roll tarp, but the entire front office lends a helping hand, so it's a completely different experience than in Major League Baseball."
Ultimately, the mindset of event management, team officials and umpires needs to change for the safety of all parties involved with tarping, not just athletes. Ideally, they should monitor not only the lightning and storm data, but also the gust fronts of wind preceding a storm. Often the wind signals a bigger storm on the horizon, so it's important to stay ahead of the curve, and avoid the sail in the sky.
Tarping is a time-tested practice that protects the safety and quality of natural grass fields. In all tarping, the safety of the crew should be the highest priority. Field managers need to be proactive and monitor all conditions when making tough decisions to protect the field and the crew.
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