By Dennis Read
While spring may be the time of the year most often associated with thunderstorms, there’s plenty of action—and danger—in the skies during the fall. Numerous college football games were delayed by lightning last weekend while some high school games have ended early for the same reason. So now is as good a time as any to review the basics of lightning safety and some of the new technology that can help keep your athletes safe.
Over the past 30 years, more than 1,800 people in the U.S. have been killed by lightning, which is actually a little bit more than the number of people killed by tornadoes. Many people overlook the threat presented by lightning or wait too long to seek shelter. The general rule for lightning safety is known as “30-30.” If you hear thunder within 30 seconds of seeing a lightning flash (which equates to a distance of about six miles) then it’s time to take cover. The “all-clear” should not be sounded until at least 30 minutes have elapsed since the last clap of thunder.
But technology has offered more sophisticated ways to track these dangerous storms. For the past two years, Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools have been using a system that sends alerts to selected cell phones based on a pre-determined set of weather criteria, including lightning strikes, predicted lightning, and National Weather Service storm warnings.
"All the sports coaches carry these phones, as well as band and ROTC directors, and even teachers take them on field trips," Jerry Graziose, Director of safety for the Broward County Public Schools told Mobile Enterprise magazine. "I'm not worried about the false alarms; I'm worried about no alarms. The best part of this service is that it is available anywhere, and if there is a weather alert, [we'll] get it immediately."
The same system is used by the Loudon County (Va.) Schools. In South Carolina, officials at two schools decided to go with a lightning detection system that monitors the atmospheric conditions, sounding an alarm when it detects the potential for a lightning strike. One of the schools installed the system a year after a 17-year-old soccer player was killed by lighting during practice.
When the system's sensors detect a lightning threat, a horn and strobe lights are activated, alerting everyone on the field to move inside. Once the system measures the last detectable activity, an all-clear signal is sounded.
"When kids hear the alarm," Oakland Preparatory School Athletic Director Steve Smith told the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal, "they go immediately into the building. I don't care if the sun is shining, its an automatic 'inside the building.'"
The risks are especially high at college football games where upwards of 100,000 people at some college games may be gathered in one spot with limited space available indoors. The National Weather Service Web site includes a page highlighting the special risks lightning presents to large stadiums. It reads:
Although stadiums may employ a general evacuation plan, complete evacuation is counterproductive for lightning safety. Outdoor events which fill stadiums to capacity are at the highest risk since there is little room for people to move about. The University of Colorado study detailed five lightning-related incidents at games within ... two years. In some cases, stadium officials did not have adequate and timely knowledge of an approaching storm. In other cases when officials knew of such a storm, crowd management actions (or lack thereof) frequently resulted in near panic situations where exits were blocked and/or fans were left in the open during the lightning storm.
Both the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) and the NCAA have established policies to follow in case of lightning. The NCAA guidelines emphasize the importance of preparing a lightning safety plan and closely monitoring weather conditions and reports, especially watches and warnings. According to the NCAA:
A “watch” means conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop in an area; a “warning” means that severe weather has been reported in an area and for everyone to take the proper precautions.
The latest revision of the guidelines in June 2007 added two new items. In the first, lightning safety experts suggest that if you hear thunder, begin preparation for evacuation. If you see lighting, consider suspending activities and heading for your designated safer locations. The second mentions the importance of considering local safety needs and weather patterns when designing a lightning safety plan.
The NATA position statement, meanwhile, goes into detail about forming a lightning safety plan and the proper of lightning strike victims. It says:
If a lightning-strike victim presents in asystole or respiratory arrest, it is critical to initiate CPR as soon as safely possible. Because lightning-strike victims do not remain connected to a power source, they do not carry an electric charge and are safe to assess. However, during an ongoing thunderstorm, lightning activity in the local area still poses a deadly hazard for the medical team responding to the incident. The athletic trainer or other medical personnel should consider his or her own personal safety before venturing into a dangerous situation to render care.
The NATA statement also cautions against relying on rain as an indicator of the severity of the weather.
It is important to be much more wary of the lightning threat than the rain. Lightning can strike in the absence of rain, as well as from apparently clear blue skies overhead, even though a thunderstorm may be nearby. The presence of lightning or thunder should be the determining factor in postponing or suspending games and activities, not the amount of rainfall on the playing field. Lightning should be the only critical factor in decision making for athletic trainers, umpires, officials, referees, and coaches.
Although lacking information on the latest technology, a 2003 article from Training & Conditioning offers some insight in the lightning safety program at the University of Florida, including details on game management procedures and practice guidelines as well as treatment protocols in the event of lightning strike.
Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management.
Montana State University in Bozeman was one of the schools that had a lightning delay two weekends ago. We use a lightning detector at practices and at games from SkyScan:
It costs about $175. Our trainers use it at all outdoor practices as well. We have an emergency evacuation plan for our stadium (holds about 15,000 and we were sold out that day), and it works very well. The officials were great to work with, knew their stuff, and we were able to get our game back on track after about an hour delay. The biggest difficulty was that there was no visible lightning that we could see, granted our vision is impaired by the stadium.There were a couple real wicked storm cells that went through with heavy winds. We were thankful we had reviewed our emergency evacuation procedures the week before opening weekend.
Assistant Sports Information Director of Operations
Montana State University Athletics