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Naples Daily News (Florida)

A recent deadly lightning strike in Fort Myers Beach has brought renewed attention to outdoor safety this time of year, when afternoon storms rage almost daily in Southwest Florida.

As football coaches prepare to return to practice fields Monday, they're reviewing more than playbooks and defensive schemes. With players spending as many as three hours a day outside over the next two weeks, coaches also are going over their lightning response protocols.

"You can't take a chance," when dealing with lightning, Palmetto Ridge football coach Ryan Mitchell said. "We get these kids for three hours a day, and it's our responsibility to protect them and keep them safe the entire time."

For coaches in Collier County, like Mitchell, the lightning plan is simple: when they hear an alarm, get off the field.

RELATED: Technology, Education Keys to Keeping Athletes Safe from Lightning

All seven public high schools in Collier are equipped with lightning prediction systems. While some lightning meters monitor strikes in a certain radius (usually 10 miles), Collier's systems monitor atmospheric conditions to predict when lighting could strike.

All 50 schools in the district, from elementary to high schools, have the lightning alarms. Community School and First Baptist Academy, private schools in North Naples with football teams, have the same Thor Guard System as the public schools.

St. John Neumann and Seacrest, which does not have football, do not have lightning detection systems. However both Collier County private schools are within earshot of facilities with alarms. Seacrest is half a mile from two golf courses, while Neumann is within half a mile of Golden Gate High School and Golden Gate Community Park.

Coaches at Neumann and Seacrest also have weather apps on their cell phones that send alerts when lightning is nearby.

PRE-EMPTIVE SAFETY

The prediction systems were installed seven years ago, according to school district executive director of support services Tom Conrecode.

"(The systems) have a fairly high level of accuracy in terms of predicting thunderstorms," Conrecode said. "In most cases of error, the error is to the benefit of safety, not the other way around."

Yet coaches can be ambivalent toward the lightning alarms. They want to keep players safe, but they still have work to do. And walking through plays in the cafeteria isn't the same as live action on the practice field.

The lightning prediction meters can be particularly frustrating.

When the alarm goes off while the sun is out, it can be hard for a football team to understand why it has to leave the field. But the Thor Guard System is designed to predict a lightning strike before it happens, not pick up strikes that already have occurred.

"There could not be a cloud in the sky and that sucker goes off," Immokalee coach Rich Dombroski said. "But coaches will get off the field and check (the Thor Guard app on) their phones and say, 'Yeah, there's lightning five miles away.' It's frustrating, but better safe than sorry."

Coaches are especially cautious after the incident at Southwest Florida Christian Academy in October 2012. While walking to football practice, sixth-grader Jesse Watlington was struck by lightning and later died.

Watlington's parents sued McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, home of SFCA, claiming the church's lightning detectors weren't working properly. McGregor pastor Richard Powell denied the claim. The church settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in late 2013.

"So many people have seen the dangers (of lightning), especially with the incident at Southwest Florida Christian," said Cassie Barone, athletic director at Community School, which plays SFCA in football. "We don't want to make the wrong decision and cost someone his life. If we have to sit out (practice) for 20 minutes, coaches are OK with that."

KEEPING WITH PROTOCOL

When the alarm goes off, everyone outside at the school must go inside. If it's a Friday night football game, the entire stadium must be cleared, including fans and workers.

In Collier County, there is no set time limit to wait following a lightning alarm. The Thor Guard System lets coaches and administrators know when the atmosphere has cleared and it is safe to return outdoors.

Lee County installed lightning detection systems at its 13 high schools two years ago. The WeatherBug system by Earth Networks detects cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground strikes. An alarm sounds when lightning strikes within 10 miles, and the fields must be cleared. People can return outside 30 minutes after the last strike.

Before the lightning meters where installed, Lee County coaches had hand-held devices that detected strikes. However, the alarms on the devices could be hard to hear in the middle of football practice.

"Safety has to be No. 1," South Fort Myers coach Grant Redhead said. "We've never had any close calls, especially with the new system in Lee County. It takes the guesswork off us. When the horn goes off, we go inside."

Coaches say there's also a common-sense element to lightning awareness. If big, black clouds are rolling in, they say, keep the players indoors whether the lightning alarm has sounded or not.

Lightning delays can be frustrating for football teams. But severe weather is just part of playing in what some call the lightning capital of the world. And it's something coaches start the season knowing they'll be dealing with for the next few months.

"You don't want to get booted off the field at any time, but it's a reality," First Baptist athletic director and football coach Billy Sparacio said. "We coach in Southwest Florida. You better have a plan for what to do when it happens. And it usually happens almost every afternoon as soon as school gets out.
 

August 3, 2014
 
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