How Lightning Detection Systems and Prepared Protocols Can Keep Your Athletic Events Safe

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Severe weather can bring just about any outdoor sporting event anywhere in the country to a screeching halt, and it frequently does. While tornadoes, hail and high winds can be dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous weather phenomenon is lightning, as it’s more difficult to predict and can strike in an instant without warning.

Luckily, most sports organizations have strict protocols and policies in place around what to do should lightning be a threat during game time. These policies are bolstered by high-tech lightning detection systems that can give coaches, umpires and event organizers advanced notice of an approaching storm that may contain lightning. Here’s a look at the NCAA’s lightning safety guidance, as well as insights from a provider of lightning detection systems on what’s important when selecting the right solution for your facility or organization.

Autonomous Lightning Detection

Andrew Davis of Wxline, which makes a lightning detection system, says that organizations and communities are increasingly aware of, and prepared for, the dangers associated with lightning. “It’s becoming more commonplace for facilities to address the concerns around lightning dangers,” he says. “And I think that innovations in the technology are helping to drive more people to seek this type of solution.”

For Wxline, which doesn’t bill itself as a weather monitoring company, the name of the game is lightning detection. Davis says there’s a difference between the two types of systems. “Everybody knows, if you go into a warehouse facility, there’s going to be a sprinkler system there. And then if there’s a fire, that system is going to go off. We want our lightning detection system to perform the same way,” he says. “It operates behind the scenes, it’s not something that you have to constantly monitor. But you know that if a credible threat is present, it’s going to go off without fail every single time, and when it does go off, it’s going to be because there is a real threat, which is one of the other big things that differentiates us from other systems — we are detecting active lightning, we are not predicting when the conditions for lightning may or may not be present.”

Davis says that concentrating solely on active lightning strikes means less false alerts, which can cause unnecessary game delays and other disruptions in activity. “Most facilities don’t necessarily care if there’s a building thunderstorm that’s 30 miles away, especially if they’re not going to do anything about it until that threat is inside of say 10 miles or inside of five miles,” he says. “So that ability to track a storm over your entire state may be beneficial to some, but most people want to know who’s in danger in my immediate vicinity, not three counties over, and I need to know that immediately. And we need to take action just as quickly as that threat makes itself known.”

For those looking for a lightning detection system, Davis says there are a few things to look for in a new system.

“I think number one is the ability for the system to operate autonomously, to really remove the human element from it as much as you possibly can. Our system has the ability to be manually activated, as well as autonomously activated, but that capability to perform automated functions that do not require a human to be involved and then get that information out to the people who are most at risk out in the open when there is a lightning threat present is essential.”

“If the system is modular, it can grow with you as your needs change over time. With some systems, you’re really locked into what you get.”

“This may seem obvious, but you want to ensure that you’re not getting alerted to threats that aren’t there, and on the other hand, you definitely want to make sure that you’re not missing threats — that’s absolutely the most important piece.”

Long-term costs
“You’re investing in a system that you’re going to own and that’s going to be yours, so you want to be sure that your community can become familiar with it and that you can grow with it over time. If you’re getting something that you are paying a subscription service for, those ongoing costs can really add up. And if you’re locking into a contract for those services, they can continue to increase the price for that subscription, and you put yourself in a really tough spot where you’re now relying on this.”

Protocols and preparation 

In the event that your organization doesn’t have a dedicated lightning detection system, there are things you can do to help ensure players, coaches and officials remain safe. The NCAA has collaborated with lightning safety experts to develop specific guidelines for lightning safety. Institutions are advised to create a lightning safety plan tailored to their local needs, venue accessibility and weather patterns.

• Experts recommend that when lightning is observed within six miles of the venue or when there is a 30-second gap between lightning and thunder, all individuals should seek shelter in a safer location. Thunder may be difficult to hear during events, so safety plans should accommodate for this. Use the Flash to Bang method (see diagram) to estimate the distance between your location and the lightning flash.

• Efficient evacuation procedures, including announcements, signage and designated safer locations, should be in place to ensure the orderly movement of teams and spectators.

• It’s important to note that lightning strikes can occur even in clear skies or without rainfall, especially common during summer thunderstorms. Any instance of thunder indicates danger, and precautions should be taken accordingly.

• Using landline telephones during thunderstorms is strongly discouraged due to safety risks. Cellular or cordless phones are safer alternatives, particularly when used indoors.

• Following a lightning event, it’s advised to wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunderclap and lightning flash, and to move away from the venue before resuming activities. At night, lightning may be visible from farther distances, but caution should still be exercised.

• In the event of a lightning strike, CPR is safe for first responders to administer. Victims should be moved to a safer location if possible before beginning CPR. Prompt emergency care, including calling 911 and activating emergency action plans, is crucial for lightning strike victims showing signs of cardiac or respiratory arrest.

• Access to automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) should be part of the emergency action plan, but CPR should not be delayed while searching for one.

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