By Brad Nelson
When it comes to severe weather, lightning poses the biggest threat to outdoor facilities and venues, especially in the summer. Over the last 10 years, lightning has killed 30 people on average each year and injured about 300 others in the United States alone. As we approach the country’s “lightning season,” it’s essential that facility managers understand the dangers of severe weather and how to keep spectators, players, performers and outdoor venue guests safe. Events like the PGA Tour, which will arrive in Hilton Head, SC later this week, work to keep people safe with efforts that include on-site meteorologists.
Don’t Get Caught in the Storm
When a thunderstorm hits and lightning is close, facility managers only have minutes, maybe even seconds, to make critical safety decisions. Since a lightning strike is typically two to three miles in length and can travel 10 to 25 miles from the storm, it’s difficult to estimate exactly when a specific location will be at risk. To prevent injuries or even fatalities, facility managers must have a plan in place.
Every facility is different; therefore, evacuation procedures and severe weather plans should be unique. Developing a lightning-specific safety plan is key, which should be customizable based on location, season, crowd size, event type, and time needed for evacuation. The biggest factor in creating a successful plan is identifying nearby indoor, lightning-safe structures and the amount of people each can hold in the event of an evacuation. If there are not enough structures to accommodate the crowd, the next best option is to direct them to fully-enclosed vehicles until the storm clears. It’s important to note that golf carts or any other open-air vehicles should not be included in planning, as they cannot effectively translate the electric current from lightning into the ground.
Members of the staff will need to be pre-assigned specific roles for evacuation, including how to effectively communicate and safely move guests to shelter when a storm threatens the outdoor venue. For example, if thunderstorms are in the forecast, no matter how low of the potential, staff members must be responsible for informing guests of the potential threat once they arrive at the facility or event. They also need to inform guests of the nearest safe indoor structure, which should be clearly identified with directional signage and instructions all throughout the venue. If the facility has a way to send direct messages to its guests, such as via email or text, an alert of the potential weather should also be distributed before and once they arrive onsite.
It’s important to keep in mind that evacuation time varies greatly, depending on the size of the facility and the crowd. Events with both a large crowd and venue can take more than 30 minutes to evacuate. In order to fully understand the amount of time it will take to evacuate a crowd, practicing lightning safety drills and evacuation procedures is recommended at each facility. These practice drills are very beneficial for efficiency, knowledge of procedures, and event staff engagement when it comes to a real evacuation. Once an evacuation has been completed, it’s important to step back and evaluate its success or failure. Facility managers can review how the weather impacted operations, conclude the effectiveness of the lightning-specific safety plan, and decide if changes are needed moving forward.
Keep Your Eye on the Sky
As mentioned earlier, certain staff members will need designated roles for the lightning-specific safety plan to be effective. One of the most important roles is the weather monitor, whose sole responsibility should be continuously monitoring the weather affecting the area and watching for severe weather warnings and lightning potential. They must also continuously monitor weather forecasts leading up to an event at the facility, so the staff and facility management can be notified if there is potential for the lightning-specific safety plan to be enacted. If volatile weather is in the forecast, this is a good time to review the plan and determine if changes are needed or if tweaks to the plan are needed.
It is important that, at no point should the weather monitor have any other duties related to the event or facility due to the distractions that this may cause. In order to be effective in this role, the weather monitor should utilize professional, accurate forecasts and consultation to understand when there is a real threat and evacuation is needed. While there are many free weather Apps and local news weather forecasts available, few provide weather forecasts for specific venue locations nor do they provide actionable alerts when that location is at risk of lightning danger or severe weather. In fact, some local weather outlets use data from weather stations that are most commonly located at the nearest airport. Often the event is many miles away, making the forecast inaccurate.
If a facility does not have enough staff or the tools available to support this weather monitor role, it can be filled by either an on-site or on-call meteorologist. Professional meteorologists can advise when an evacuation is needed as well as provide detailed information on the current storm situation, allowing facility managers and staff to focus on the event at hand. There are many weather providers, such as DTN, who offer services that deliver critical real-time alerting, location-specific forecasts, lightning display and thunderstorm information. If using an on-site meteorologist, he or she will need to become familiar with the lightning and severe weather safety evacuation plan. The meteorologist can even recommend changes or enhancements to help ensure the complete safety of guests.
Stay Alert of Imminent Weather
Remember that lightning awareness should begin at the very first sign of a lightning threat. It may not matter if the skies above are blue, as lightning can strike several miles away from the core of a thunderstorm. While dark skies, thunder rumbles, lightning flashes, storm alerts and rain are all indicators that lightning could be close or approaching, professional weather services are the best source to determine when a location is at risk. Most importantly, have a lightning specific-safety plan in place to determine if, when, and how evacuation may be needed to keep guests and staff safe.
Nelson has 12 years of experience as an on-site event meteorologist with DTN, a provider of information services that delivers actionable insights on platforms customized to client needs within diverse industries. He specializes in lightning, severe weather safety, and evacuations for golf courses and other large venues. As part of the PGA Tour on-site team, Nelson produces weather forecasts, provides consultation, and assists with evacuations and delays for tournaments in the U.S. and globally.