Severe Weather Safety at Outdoor Venues

[Photo courtesy of DTN Weather]
[Photo courtesy of DTN Weather]

Monitoring the weather, understanding the threat and making the call to evacuate for the safety of players and fans is no easy task, and it's one that venue managers must take seriously.

Brad Nelson is the Sports & Rec On-site Meteorologist and Safety Markets Team Lead for DTN Weather.Brad Nelson is the Sports & Rec On-site Meteorologist and Safety Markets Team Lead for DTN Weather.

After all, the results of failing to act can be catastrophic. In the past 10 years, 313 people have been killed by lightning in the United States — an average of 31 people killed each year. And 64 percent of all lightning fatalities are attributed to leisure activities, with 15 percent coming from sports alone. Each year, more than 100,000 thunderstorms occur in the U.S., producing 25 million lightning bolts. Lightning averages two to three miles in length but can strike as far as 25 miles from the storm that produces it, making it very challenging to know when your sporting event may be in danger.

Sporting events are particularly challenging when it comes to weather safety. It takes time to evacuate players and fans to safety, and the size of the crowd and venue impacts how much warning time is needed to make an evacuation call. Venues that cover large spaces, like golf courses, can take a significant amount of time to evacuate. Major sporting events can take longer than 30 minutes to clear out.

So, what can venue managers do to be ready to protect the crowds at their events? Here are steps to take before a storm hits:

1. Develop a lightning safety plan and protocols.
First, venue managers should develop a specific lightning and severe weather safety plan. Perhaps more important than any other step, simply going through the process of creating a plan can have a major impact on your ability to take action in the face of dangerous weather. A good lightning safety plan should be customized based on the location of your venue, the time of year, the size and type of event you are holding, and the time needed to evacuate. The only safe action during a thunderstorm is to get people into an enclosed structure or vehicle. There is no safe place to take shelter outdoors during a lightning storm.

2. Identify a responsible party to make the evacuation call.
Once a safety plan has been created, venue managers should designate someone to monitor the weather and be responsible for either making the evacuation decision or disseminating the information to the proper authorities who will make the decision to evacuate. If nobody on staff has the comfort level or expertise to fulfill this role, it can be filled by a consulting meteorologist who can provide information and recommendations to officials. The important thing is to have someone identified, to be sure that person understands their responsibility, and to empower that person to make the decision to evacuate if necessary. This person should review the lightning safety plan and become familiar with the script for announcements to visitors regarding any warnings and all-clear signals to be used.

3. Monitor the weather.
With a plan and a responsible designee in place, venue managers should monitor the local weather and plan ahead. Stay alert to severe weather watches, warnings and advisories, and overall weather patterns that could predict the potential for severe weather during your event. Staying on top of the weather in advance can help you have the proper mindset to take the warning signs of oncoming severe weather seriously. Don't let the pressure to host a successful event influence your judgment or cause you to ignore what your senses are telling you when it comes to the weather.

Accurate weather forecasts, lightning prediction technology, lightning detection apps, television news coverage, and alerts or watches from the National Weather Service are all great sources of information. There are also services dedicated to monitoring the weather for your event that can then provide alerts to help you make the decision to evacuate in time.

4. Plan your evacuation routes and locations.
The middle of an emergency is no time to realize you don't have adequate facilities to protect your crowd. Before an event occurs, it is critical that you determine the closest safe structure or location, as well as how much time you will need to evacuate everyone to that spot. Some venues may not have safe structures suitable for everyone or, due to the venue's size, it may not be possible to quickly get everyone to a safe location. In such cases, a completely enclosed vehicle is the next best option.

5. Take action as soon as you are aware of the risk.
Finally, venue managers should remember that lightning awareness begins at the first sign of a lightning threat, no matter how far away it is. This includes dark skies, rainfall, thunder rumbles or lightning flashes, and storm alerts. With the potential for lightning to strike many miles ahead of the storm, it is important not to ignore a potential threat when signs of lightning are present.

The expectation of a flawlessly executed sporting event can put a lot of pressure on venue managers, but it's important to remember that weather delays will not negatively impact the reputation of an event as much as being caught unprepared in the face of a weather emergency. The risk of endangering players, employees and fans is too high to ignore. Putting a plan in place before the storm and trusting that plan when the storm hits will go a long way toward ensuring that venue managers can respond safely and quickly in the face of danger.

If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate with your best-laid plans and forces a cancellation of your event, NCS4 recommends you be prepared to follow these best practices:

Have a decision process in place, agreed upon with all related parties.

Decide ahead of time how a cancellation order will affect operations. Timing and notification are important factors to avoid confusion.

Include in the plan a description of actions to be taken by staff, public safety, participants and spectators.

Integrate evacuation, sheltering and reunification plans into the larger matrix to reunite participants with their personal items and families once the hazard has cleared, and ensure you provide them with adequate medical and amenity care.

Ensure that third-party and sponsor contracts have cancellation clauses, and decision-makers are equipped with knowledge as to financial implications.

Outline refund parameters ahead of time to ensure quick, effective communication.


This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "When lightning strikes: Keeping your outdoor event safe" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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