Feature Article - March 2020
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Be Prepared

Planning for Inclement Weather Events

By Dave Ramont

The NWS uses 122 local weather forecast offices to serve the United States, with each office responsible for gathering weather observations and climate data, issuing severe weather warnings and issuing local marine, aviation, fire and public weather forecasts. Each office is staffed with a Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) who is responsible for planning and coordinating public awareness programs. Contacting the local WCM can benefit those looking to create a weather action plan.

Tanja Fransen is a meteorologist with NOAA/NWS, stationed in Glasgow, Montana. Her office offers an Event Planning and Hazardous Weather guide for the Glasgow community, with lots of insightful suggestions broken down into these sections: Months before the event; One-two weeks prior to the event; Two-four days prior to the event; Day before event; Morning of event; During the event. "We in the Weather Service would much rather help you plan well ahead", said Fransen. "If you're planning an event, whether it's for profit or not, you really should plug in with your local Emergency Management services and let them be aware of it, let them know how many people you're anticipating. And you should have your severe weather plan, especially in suburban and rural areas."

One thing the guide stresses is designating a Weather Watcher for the event. This person remains aware of weather conditions and takes action when there's a developing weather emergency to move people to safety. They have authority to cancel events or change hours or dates. They should be the primary person coordinating with other event organizers and local emergency responders. They should have multiple ways of accessing weather information.

Fransen said that while they do work with law enforcement on smaller community events, when it comes to larger for-profit events like concerts and NASCAR races, the private sector tends to fill in these gaps. "The private sector really serves a good role because they're specifically looking at the event for that venue operator. A lot of the major concert groups have hired on private meteorologists. They're going to make enough money on their event to pay them to help write the plan and monitor the weather—not just the day of it, but the days leading up to it."

"The NWS can work with a local emergency manager, but not with the commercial venue staff," said Kloesel, citing a directive that prohibits NWS from assisting private venues. "Therefore, it's preferable for a venue to have their own professional meteorological expertise on hand."

One Minnesota-based firm provides weather solutions for sports and recreation events, as well as other industries. "We serve large clients such as major event and concert organizers, artist tours and venues as well as smaller clients who may be organizing a fair or festival for a few days to a week", said Brad Nelson, meteorologist and weather product manager with the company. He mentioned Notre Dame University as a client. "We provide weather insights, on-site meteorologists and actionable information for many of their large events, including the 2018 Garth Brooks concert, their home football games and their annual spring commencement ceremony."

According to Nelson, their meteorologists will assist a venue with any weather-related questions, including evacuation decisions. They'll help them build a weather action plan and assist with drills and practice sessions. "We've been involved in many inclement weather table-top exercises and development of protocols, helping our clients feel more prepared to address severe weather situations that could arise during their event."

Nelson explained that some customers plan events that last a few days, a week or two or more, and they may prefer to engage meteorologists and forecasts in the weeks leading up to their event. Some have meteorologists on site during the event advising about changing weather conditions and how they might impact their action plans. Others prefer a remote and dedicated meteorologist site monitoring and alerting package. "Yet other clients use our consulting forum to call our meteorologists who are focused on the event location. We tailor the services to our customer's budgets and needs."

The company also offers summaries and analysis after a weather event occurs, helping venues better understand if their safety plan was successful, according to Nelson. "They may also need to know if the weather event caused unseen damage, such as hail on a roof. Finally, they may need records of weather events and information for their insurance provider."

Fransen said that they like to reach across the aisle with the private sector, and Nelson agrees. "We consider the NWS, AMS and other government agencies as partners and will work in coordination for various projects and events. There's an abundance of data and knowledge sharing between government agencies and the private sector."

The AMS website highlights numerous success stories where proactive venue operators working closely with weather professionals have averted disaster when faced with life-threatening weather events. But they also share tragedies involving weather at venues to underscore potential dangers. One such event occurred in August 2011, at an outdoor concert by Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. A wind gust from an approaching severe thunderstorm hit the stage's temporary roof structure, causing it to collapse, killing seven people and injuring 58 others. Several issues were found with the level of preparedness and the actions of State Fair officials and Sugarland representatives that contributed to the disaster.

"If you look at what happened at the Indiana State Fair, that was a big wakeup call. Hope is not a plan," said Fransen, referring to an announcement made shortly before the stage collapse, which said they were aware that weather was coming but "hope that it will miss us." Fransen mentioned seeing video from large events where someone may see lightning in the distance and say "I hope that doesn't hit us." "Well, that's not your plan," said Fransen. "There's lightning within a certain distance of your stadium, so you need to move people. Whether your stadium is built in such a way that you can move them away from where they're exposed or whether you have to send them all to their cars for a period—that's a safer option then having people sitting out."