Whether simply trying to play a great game or enjoy the fan experience, severe weather can threaten the safety of players, coaching staffs and spectators. Lightning and high winds are the biggest weather risks for outdoor sports venues, especially during the spring and summer months. On average, 64% of lightning deaths that occur in the US each year happen to those participating in outdoor recreation activities. This is attributed to the fact lightning is extremely difficult to predict without advanced weather technology and can even strike from what seems to be a perfectly blue sky. As we approach lightning season in America, outdoor sports venue managers need to understand how to keep spectators, players and coaches safe.
Sporting events are an exciting experience, as the thrill of the game energizes fans and spectators. However, outdoor venue managers are responsible for the safety of those fans and players, and must know when they need to delay a game or cancel it completely in the event of severe weather conditions.
Today, weather delays are becoming more common due to an increase in extreme weather events and greater awareness around the dangers of lightning and severe weather. Because an average lightning strike is 2 to 3 miles in length and can travel 10 to 25 miles from the storm, it’s difficult to estimate exactly when and if a sports venue may be at risk. Venue managers may only have minutes to make critical safety decisions when a thunderstorm rolls in and therefore must already have a plan in place to prevent injuries or even fatalities.
The first step in the planning process is developing a lightning-specific safety plan, which should be customized based on venue, season, crowd size, event type and time needed for evacuation. One of the main factors in creating a successful plan is determining the nearest lightning-safe indoor structures for fans to get to in the event of an evacuation, as well as how many people each structure can hold. If there are not enough lightning-safe structures to accommodate the crowd size, the next best option is to direct them to fully enclosed vehicles until the storm clears. Open-air vehicles, like golf carts, do not translate the electric current from lightning to ground effectively, and therefore should not be included in planning.
Another integral part of this plan is pre-assigning on-site venue staff with specific roles for evacuation. Staff members will need to learn how to effectively and calmly communicate the urgency of evacuation, without frightening guests, and safely move them to shelter when a storm threatens the sports venue. For example, if thunderstorms are forecasted for the venue, staff must be responsible for informing guests of the potential threat once they arrive, as well as pointing out the nearest safe indoor structure. These structures should be clearly identified with directional signage and instructions throughout the venue. If applicable, the sports venue should send direct messages to guests alerting them of the potential weather threat before they arrive on site, and again if weather becomes a threat while at the venue. This will help guests make an informed and conscious decision on whether they want to put themselves at risk before arriving at the venue.
Evacuating a sports venue can take a long time. For example, extremely large venues with large crowds can take up to an hour for complete evacuation. Extreme weather can also negatively impact existing evacuation plans, due to spectator’s heightened awareness of the dangerous weather. However, venues can proactively practice lightning safety drills and the evacuation procedure to help determine how long an evacuation will take. When it comes to a real evacuation, these practice drills have proven to be beneficial for efficiency, knowledge of procedures and staff engagement. After the venue has completed an evacuation, it’s important to reevaluate the process and determine if it was successful or if improvements need to be made. This will enable venue managers to determine how the weather impacted operations, the effectiveness of the lightning-specific safety plan, and make necessary adjustments moving forward.
Free doesn’t equal better
Each pre-assigned staff role is crucial to an effective lightning-specific plan, yet the most important role is the weather monitor. Their sole responsibility should be monitoring the weather near the venue leading up to the days of the event, watching for severe weather watches and warnings, and especially any lightning potential. If inclement weather is forecasted, the weather monitor must immediately notify venue management or officials who are in charge of getting the ball rolling on evacuation procedures. If inclement weather is a possibility during any game or practice, it is best practice to review the lightning-specific safety plan with all staff and determine if changes are needed based on the impending weather conditions.
While free weather apps and local news weather forecasts are available, few provide highly accurate forecasts for specific locations. Nor do they provide actionable alerts when that location is at risk of lightning or severe weather. Most local weather outlets use data from weather stations that are located at the nearest airport to produce their observations and forecasts. Venues can be located several if not many miles away, leading to forecast inaccuracies. Internet websites that offer free lightning forecasts often miss lightning strikes and don’t update frequently enough, sometimes only every 10 or 15 minutes, which provide a dangerous false sense of security. And the “flash-to-bang” method for predicting lightning’s risk on a location is both unscientific and unreliable since lightning can strike farther than 10 miles away from the parent storm, and this method will not work for the first lightning strike of a thunderstorm.
To be most effective, the weather monitor should use professional forecasts or meteorologist consultation to understand when a threat is real and evacuation is needed. Professional forecasts use current technologies that combine real-time data with highly accurate computer models and meteorologist experience to provide a detailed, location-specific forecast with storm attributes to effectively inform venue managers. Advanced lightning tracking technology can monitor lightning location and movement in real-time, and alerts can be sent via email or text message as lightning is detected in a pre-determined area. Professional meteorologists can provide detailed information on the current storm situation and their level of confidence in a forecast. This is extremely crucial to understanding and reducing risk, especially when making difficult decisions regarding game delays and public safety. There are many weather providers who offer services that deliver critical real-time alerts, location-specific forecasts, lightning display and thunderstorm information.
There is strong evidence that the climate is changing, as well as the frequency and volatility of extreme weather events. With extreme weather events occurring more frequently and impacting a larger portion of the population, a trend that is expected to continue, the responsibility of ensuring player and public safety at outdoor games will become even more challenging. Ultimately, decisions regarding whether to delay or cancel a game must be made with the best information available at the time. By equipping yourself with advanced forecasting technologies and access to an expert meteorologist, you will be better able to protect players and fans. Safety must always be at the forefront and of highest importance when lightning strikes or other inclement weather conditions threaten play.
Brad Nelson has 12 years of experience as an On-Site Event Meteorologist with DTN, specializing in lightning, severe weather safety and evacuations for golf courses and other large venues. As part of the PGA Tour on-site team, he produces weather forecasts, provides consultation, and assists with evacuations and delays for tournaments in the US and globally. https://www.dtn.com/industries/weather/sports-recreation/
Case study
With quickly changing weather in Maryland, Loyola University not only needed to know if dangerous weather—particularly lightning—was approaching; they needed to know exactly when it would arrive. The university also needed accurate information about how long the inclement weather would last, in order to give league officials and referees a safe and accurate estimate as to when athletic play could resume.
The existing solution Loyola used offered the basic features mandated by the NCAA, but it didn’t provide a “countdown clock” showing when it would be safe to resume athletic play. That’s when Loyola University Maryland turned to DTN. The university selected WeatherSentry Mobile to get the real-time weather details needed to keep students, staff, officials and spectators safe.
WeatherSentry gives Loyola University Maryland the robust set of weather data points it needs to know when to evacuate athletes and spectators from the sports venue. WeatherSentry’s continual live updates and advance warnings allow university staff to alert everyone to inclement weather situations and keep them up-to-date on the status of weather-related delays. Additionally, various departments and groups at Loyola University Maryland rely upon WeatherSentry’s mobile capabilities. For example, athletic trainers receive alerts on their mobile phones during practice, so they can notify coaches when dangerous weather is approaching the field.

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