Feature Article - March 2020
Find a printable version here

Be Prepared

Planning for Inclement Weather Events

By Dave Ramont

Lightning is certainly a big risk, and detection technologies are always improving. Even phone apps have customizable lightning detection components. Both Fransen and Kloesel are fans of lightning detection networks that are maintained by the private sector. "These national networks in the hands of a professional meteorologist who can combine this data with dozens of other datasets can begin to precisely determine lightning risk," said Kloesel.

But both meteorologists also point out that different venues have different needs with regard to how far your lightning detection range should be. "Don't choose a lightning radius without careful thought," cautioned Kloesel. "Eight miles for a smaller venue will not work the same way as eight miles for NASCAR, as they might need extra time to get hundreds of thousands of spectators to safety."

Lately we're seeing more lightning detection devices being placed in parks and other public places. Rich Wills is a principal at a Wisconsin-based company offering products to the recreation industry, including lightning warning systems. "In areas that experience frequent thunderstorms, municipalities often place lightning warning systems at busy sports parks and aquatic facilities. Golf courses, airports, military installations and many commercial facilities have adopted an automated lightning warning system to protect patrons and staff."

Wills explained how automated lightning detection and warning systems issue an alarm when a local detector reports a lightning discharge within a certain distance to the area of concern, with five miles considered the minimum distance for warning. "Alerts to the public are issued via distinct audio and visual notifications. It's important to have all affected parties notified simultaneously to ensure that all persons seek shelter." After there is no lightning for a determined time, the system automatically sends an all-clear. Wills added that these systems can be customized to cover areas as small as a pool or as large as an entire county. "Each scenario presents different requirements to which the technology is adaptable."

If desired, systems can be programmed on a seven-day schedule, according to Wills, to meet a facility's hours of operation. "In addition to audible and visual notifications on site, alerting mission-critical staff who may be off site via text messaging and email is an important option for users to consider." Solar-powered systems are also available.

Sometimes issues with heat and humidity are overlooked, but on a worldwide basis, more people die from heat than any other weather. Fransen mentioned the most dramatic weather toll at an event in U.S. history, taking place in August of 1990 at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul ll at Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado. Several deaths occurred and thousands more fell ill due to heat, lack of shade and dehydration. For this reason, Fransen stresses the importance of providing cooling stations and shade if heat is a factor.

Kloesel said that he's currently working with Drum Corps International on improving heat recognition in the marching arts, explaining that field turf can cause a playing or marching surface to be significantly hotter than the air temperature. "We've been able to reduce tornado fatalities, lightning fatalities, flood fatalities, etc. However, heat fatalities are still on the increase. Venues typically don't have cooling stations, but we do now at OU, both for the athletes and for spectators."

"We engage frequently during summer months with athletic departments on heat issues as they think about athlete safety, specializing in heat index and wet-bulb globe temperature forecasts and alerts," said Nelson. "Event organizers also turn to us for heat insights to ensure that they're working to keep spectators safe, including when to roll out cooling stations and budget for extra water."

Kloesel is encouraged that venues and organizations such as the NFL, PGA and NASCAR are recognizing that proactive weather plans are critical. "Many of the weather decision-makers in professional and college sports attend regular training sessions at places like the Event Safety Alliance and the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. I'm a subject-matter expert for both groups, and conduct annual training sessions all over the U.S. and Canada. Many professional sports and concert venues send new staff members to these workshops each year."

"The most successful event organizers are more adept to ride out inclement weather events when they have trained meteorologists providing guidance and professional weather monitoring services," noted Nelson. "Don't become the next bad weather headline!"

"Things are definitely better as far as the information age," said Fransen, citing the use of tornado warning alerts to peoples' cell phones, "but we're also in a disinformation age. Any kid with a Facebook account can put a weather forecast up, so you shouldn't trust those fly-by-night sites." She's also encouraged that the Weather Service, private sector and academic sector are working toward a common goal: "The goal is to build a weather-ready nation." RM