Feature Article - March 2020
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Be Prepared

Planning for Inclement Weather Events

By Dave Ramont

This past August, during a PGA Tour Championship event in Atlanta, lightning struck the golf course twice near the 16th tee as fans and golfers were waiting for bad weather to pass. Six people were injured, though none of the injuries were life threatening.

This incident highlights how quickly weather can turn dangerous. It also underscores how critical—and challenging—it is for venue operators, festival organizers, parks and municipalities to have weather action plans in place. From small art fairs or little league games to large concerts and sporting events, those in charge need to strategize well in advance to be prepared for any weather threats.

Each year, hazardous weather injures or kills attendees at entertainment venues. And, according to information provided by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), this is often because a weather plan didn't exist or it was simply inadequate. These plans should be generated well in advance of the event, with "an actionable set of decision triggers against a portfolio of weather risk, with a process to routinely evaluate and update the plan."

Determining how to handle evacuations is crucial, designating the nearest safe structures and knowing how long it takes to get people there when high-impact weather threatens. A secondary consideration is how to protect equipment. Other things to consider in a weather plan include making sure staff are aware of their responsibilities, and designating a trained individual to maintain situational awareness and make weather-related decisions before, during and after the event. There should be clear mechanisms for communicating weather risk among event organizers, participants and local emergency management, as well as a mass communication plan to alert attendees of any risks. This could include audio, visual and digital warnings. To support the weather plan, a professional meteorologist should forecast and monitor the weather specifically for the venue.

Kevin Kloesel is director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, as well as the university meteorologist for the Oklahoma University (OU) Office of Emergency Preparedness. In addition to developing and leading weather safety training on campus, he's provided weather preparedness training to the NFL, NCAA, NASCAR and numerous sports venues, concert halls and amusement parks. Kloesel advises to never take someone else's weather plan and copy it, since each venue is different. "Each one should take the time to go through the planning process and identify the unique needs that each venue has. In addition, each venue should have a different plan for each type of event." For instance, a football game and a concert will place different demands on staff, require different evacuation times, etc. "All of these factors need to be taken into consideration so that you know the right time to enact the weather plan."

At OU, every outdoor campus event has an emergency response plan, which includes a weather component that ensures for real-time weather monitoring and sets predetermined actions for various weather hazards. There are contingencies for lightning, wind, hail, extreme hot or cold temperatures, precipitation and tornadoes. A safety coordinator is on site for each event, and if hazardous weather threatens, they're in contact with the university meteorologist, who is also on site if the weather risk is high. All weather plans and potential weather decisions and actions are discussed ahead of time so that event organizers know what to do if severe weather occurs.

"I support over 300 events on our campus each year," said Kloesel, "whether it's 90,000 spectators at a football game or 100 at an outdoor courtyard dedication ceremony. I'm always on the speaker circuit attempting to show our peer universities the utility of implementing our duty of care in this way. Several universities are now using our model."

For parks and rec systems, Kloesel advises creating plans in advance and publishing them to all patrons. "If someone is booking an area in a park, picnic pavilion, athletic field, etc., share the plan with them. Have them sign off on the plan. So many times, people act under the stress of the event, and everyone winds up angry, or worse. Develop the plan, share the plan. Be proactive."

Many resources are available for those looking to create a weather plan. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) have prioritized impact-based decision support services as part of their Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) strategic plan. Entertainment and sports venues can access NWS materials such as the Lightning Safety Toolkit, or apply for their StormReady and TsunamiReady Ambassador Programs, which stress the importance of public readiness and utilizing integrated warning teams. They also offer guidance on preparedness and weather monitoring, and conduct training and weather drills and exercises.

The event safety specialists at AMS have also forged partnerships that have provided guides and resources for weather professionals and venue operators. These include the Event Safety Guide authored by the Event Safety Alliance and the Best Practices Guides provided by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. And event weather safety classes are offered by the Event Safety Alliance, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions and the International Association of Venue Managers.