Lightning Alerts For Campus Safety: Sports Safety

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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 a few. These sports are participated in widely across the country and they’re all played outdoors. With all outdoor events comes a 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 of an outdoor sporting 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 may seem unlikely that lightning will 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.

 Lightning strikes near a high school football game in Texas

Lightning strikes near a high school football game in Texas

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that as many as 62 percent of lightning fatalities occur during outdoor organized sport activities. A notable example was after an NFL game in Tampa, Florida on December 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 outdoor 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.

Typical Lightning Safety Procedures
The NCAA has rules and guidelines regarding what officials should do in the 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 following: 1) the use of slogans to educate; 2) a designated person to monitor threatening weather and notify those in charge of an athletic site or event; 3) planned instructions/announcements for participants and spectators; 4) designated warning and all clear signals; 5) proper signage and designation of safer places from the lightning hazard, with regard to the time it takes to evacuate and reach these safer places; 6) daily monitoring of local weather before any practice or event; and 7) a reliable source of information for lightning and severe weather monitoring. Many venues use a radius of eight to ten miles to enact plans and keep them in effect for 30 minutes after both the last sound of thunder and flash of lightning.

 Lightning above a college football game held in Tallahassee, Fla.

Lightning above a college football game held in Tallahassee, Fla.

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 kick-off of one of the seven recent cancelled or postponed football games mentioned above (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 into 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.”

The Akron-Nebraska 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, this one between Iowa State and South Dakota State, was cancelled after a lengthy delay. While these cancellations are disappointing situations for all involved, safety should always come first, regardless of the popularity of the game and the commercial interests at stake. The Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said it best, following the cancellation of the game: "At the end of the day, player safety is of the utmost importance.”

Challenges Of Lightning Safety
While most schools have, or should have, some kind of lightning safety plan, these plans can be a challenge to properly follow. In the case of lightning activity, the safety of all people in attendance at an outdoor event hinges on the all-clear call from a school official, which indicates that 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 muffle thunder, and the view may be obstructed by terrain or the venue itself.

In addition, the activities on-field are likely to distract the attention of 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.

Baron Threat Net And Lightning Tracking
Advanced weather tracking tools like Baron Threat Net provide the accuracy and reliability that public safety officials can use effectively in monitoring weather for outdoor events, such as school sports games and practices. Baron Threat Net and data products are designed to be available 24/7 with a 99.9% uptime. These tools give schools and campus safety officials access to decision-making information through Baron Threat Net web and mobile applications.

For lightning tracking specifically, there is Baron’s Lightning Data product, which is broken down into Cloud-to-Cloud, Cloud-to-Ground, Historical Lightning Data and location-based alerts. Hundreds of lightning sensors from across the country record lightning electric field waveforms, and from those waveforms the latitude, longitude, and heights are recorded. Within seconds, this data is integrated into and displayed on an interactive map in Baron Threat Net.

The lightning data is displayed with a color-coded lightning icon on the map, so that users can differentiate between Cloud-to-Cloud (purple) and Cloud-to-Ground lightning (yellow for negative, white for positive strikes). In addition, the icon will be bigger in size for a recent strike.

Scrolling over the lightning icon gives users details about the time and intensity of the strike. The icon will disappear from the screen after 15 minutes has elapsed. In addition, alerting may be setup with alerts for ranges of 5, 8, 10, 12, or 15 miles from a point. With this alerting, the user can be notified within Baron Threat Net, via e-mail, and/or via text message of a lightning strike or any occurrence of lightning within any of the given mile ranges from their designated location.

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. This product from Baron gives school officials the ability to see every strike in a given area, in real time, and eliminates guessing from the equation, giving officials confidence in their decision to postpone, cancel or resume an outdoor event.

 A close look at Threat Net’s Lightning Tracking capability.

A close look at Threat Net’s Lightning Tracking capability.

Aside from products that are lightning specific, Baron offers many value-added products, including Baron Storm Tracks, which does not rely on NWS storm tracking data. This independence allows Baron to give advanced notice of approaching severe weather before NWS alerts.

Not only do Baron storm tracking products update more frequently, but they have better location accuracy – potentially more accurate by miles.

Baron storm tracking products can also aid school officials in keeping attendees and participants of outdoor events safe, as these products simply provide more current information about weather in the area for the school officials to work with, adding context to the lightning information provided by Baron Lightning Data.

Weather Tools Essential For School Sports
When it comes to safety at school sporting events, high school or collegiate, advanced tools like Baron Threat Net, Baron Lightning Data, and other Baron storm tracking products can help school safety officials properly and effectively follow their school lightning safety plan, keeping players and fans safe from the danger of lightning.

Charlotte Observer article:

1. https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/article217728835.html

Image sources:

1. https://www.ksat.com/news/local-high-school-football-games-delayed-due-to-lightning

2. https://phys.org/news/2017-08-safe-lightning.html

3. https://www.baronthreatnet.com/product/public-safety