Last October, Pinellas County, Fla., became the only county in the Tampa Bay area to install lightning prediction systems for each of its public high schools. The overall cost for 16 schools came in at a whopping $288,000. As with any big-ticket purchase, there were some who were happy with the decision and others who were not. At the time, head Pinellas Park High School football coach Kenny Crawford told the Tampa Bay Times he thought the system was a waste of money. "Why put in a system that costs so much, when we already have free ones [cell phone apps] that work just as well, if not better?" Crawford complained.
At first pass, Crawford's argument might sound reasonable enough. Most people have consulted a mobile weather app before heading out for a jog or before planning a day at the beach. However, that same strategy doesn't quite apply to providing safety for players and fans at outdoor sporting events — and there's good reason that it doesn't.
"What we're finding is that DIY weather with an app and a non-professional tends to get you in trouble versus if you're doing it in conjunction with a professional meteorologist," says Dr. Kevin Kloesel, university meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma's Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Kloesel, who also serves as director of the Oklahoma Climate Survey, says that the current best practice of waiting 30 minutes after the last lighting flash is outdated and, in some ways, ineffective in terms of safety and inefficient in terms of getting teams back on the field. "There's no magical significance to the 30 minutes," Kloesel says. "The reason that 30 is there is because back in the day, nobody had the capability to detect and monitor lightning with the technology that is available today. The best thing you could do is just play it safe. If you didn't have any lightning in 30 minutes then you were going to be okay."
Kloesel says the United States actually has a very robust meteorological infrastructure, which includes advanced technology and a community of professional meteorologists that make it possible to assess weather conditions with greater accuracy and return teams to the field in less than 30 minutes. "I cannot tell you how many events are out there where people will sit for 30 minutes in sunshine and the storm that produced the lightning has either fallen apart or moved away a safe distance," he says. "But because of that 30 minutes, everyone's sitting out there wondering why in the heck we haven't restarted."
Perhaps the ideal situation is for schools to work with a weather prediction service, while also having a professional meteorologist on staff or within reach. Kloesel hopes to come up with new guidelines for schools that would take into consideration what kind of tools are being employed. "If you're not working with a meteorologist, then you're probably best to wait the 30 minutes, because you don't have the expertise in your pocket to know whether it's safe or not," he says. "That very conservative 30-minute wait is designed primarily for those people who do not have access to the technology, to the data, and to the forecast paradigms that are out there for storms, lightning, floods, rain and such."
So, what's the difference between an amateur with an app, and using a lightning prediction system along with a professional meteorologist? A lot.
"There's a difference in what the professional meteorologist has at their disposal versus what an amateur DIY weather person would have on an app, where you're only looking at one or two things," says Kloesel. "Maybe you're looking at lightning and maybe you're looking at radar, but you're not looking at all of the things that go into what that storm is going to do next. What's it going to look like five minutes from now?"
Amateurs consulting an app tend to get in trouble when they assume that because they know what a storm has done in the past 30 minutes, they know exactly what that storm is going to do the following 30 minutes. "That never happens. But if you've got a meteorologist in your back pocket, that meteorologist can assess the entirety of the atmosphere — all of the available data sets — and give you a risk assessment based upon the weather and if it's safe to return."
Kloesel has been testing these new guidelines at the University of Oklahoma, which sits in an area known for severe weather. "What we're finding is that as we've implemented this new strategy with our own activities on our campus, we're resuming activities sometimes 10 to 15 minutes faster than we would have been if we had just waited the 30 minutes," he says. "So, we're getting people back on the field more quickly, we're getting the game started more quickly."
Current NCAA policy requires that play be suspended if there is lightning within eight miles of the venue. It requires a 30-minute delay, which may increase, as the count will restart if a lightning strike occurs within the eight-mile radius.
When lightning is detected within eight miles of the venue, the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security suggests the following protocol:
• The designated weather watcher notifies management and event officials of nearby lightning threat and a delay is implemented. • Event officials suspend activity.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "More informed, efficient lightning policy on the horizon." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.