When lightning is near, think safety

Sports field managers must know how to safely evacuate people.
Brad Nelson
October 13, 2017
By Brad Nelson
Lightning kills up to 10 people annually in Canada.
Lightning kills up to 10 people annually in Canada. Brad Nelson photo.
When a thunderstorm hits and lightning is near, venue managers of outdoor events, including sports field managers, must make critical safety decisions in a short amount of time. Having the right information and knowing the dangers of severe weather is essential for keeping spectators and players at outdoor events safe.


Lightning is the severe weather incident that poses the biggest threat to outdoor venues, especially during the summer months. More than 94 per cent of lightning-related deaths since 1986 in Canada have occurred between June and August. Having a plan for severe weather events could mean the difference between preventing fatalities and injuries, or a disaster.

Part of what makes a thunderstorm so dangerous is the inability to know where or when lightning will strike. A lightning strike averages two to three miles in length and can travel 10 to 25 miles from the storm that produces it. This makes it very challenging to know when an outdoor event is at risk. Failing to act in time could have severe consequences. Each year in Canada, lightning strikes kill up to 10 people and seriously injure 164 others. Of these lightning-related fatalities, 64 per cent are attributed to leisure activities with 34 per cent coming from sports alone.

Outdoor events can vary greatly in size, making it hard to know when and how they should be evacuated. Some large venues, such as professional sports stadiums, take a substantial amount of time to evacuate. Since lightning can travel several miles from the storm that produces it, venue managers need to act quickly and decisively when a storm is approaching. Some events, such as golf tournaments where venue and crowd sizes are large, can take longer than 30 minutes to evacuate.

One: be prepared for the storm to hit
Storm behaviour is difficult to predict, but venue managers can take steps to be ready to protect players and spectators at their events. The first step is developing a lightning-specific safety plan. This plan should be customizable based on venue location, time of year, size of crowd, type of event and time needed to evacuate.

It is important to pre-determine which staff will fill designated roles, and how safety and evacuation communication will be facilitated to patrons when evacuation is underway. If the forecast predicts thunderstorms, it is important that patrons know this information before the event starts or during the event. No place outside is safe during a thunderstorm, so safe structures need to be identified. Predetermine the nearest enclosed building and the time needed to evacuate event attendees to that location.

There should be signs placed around the venue informing attendees and players
of the closest safe buildings. If no substantial building is near, completely enclosed vehicles are the next best option. Vehicles that are not completely enclosed with metal, such as convertibles, or that are not suitably grounded, such as golf carts, are not sufficient protection from a lightning strike. These types of vehicles will not be able to translate the electric current from a lightning strike through the body of the vehicle and into the ground effectively.

After the event, designated weather monitors should remain on duty until post-event operations conclude. Evaluation is an important aspect of your venue’s lightning safety plan. Through this, venue managers can review how the weather impacted event operations, determine the effectiveness of the safety plan and make adjustments, if necessary. Some venues, such as schools or professional sports stadiums, go as far as practising lightning safety drills. This allows venue staff to calculate how much time is needed to clear out an event before a real thunderstorm evacuation occurs.



Two: have a plan for weather monitoring
Designate a weather monitor to stay alert to severe weather watches, warnings and advisories. This person will be responsible for disseminating the information to the proper authorities who will make the decision to evacuate, or will hold the responsibility of the evacuation decision themselves. This person should not be assigned to other event-related tasks that could take their focus away from keeping on top of changing weather conditions.

If the monitor can time 30 seconds between a flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, or if the storm is within six miles of the venue, all patrons should be within a lightning safe building or vehicle. This role may be filled by an on site meteorologist who can provide counsel and expert information to venue officials. Having a meteorologist take on this role can allow venue managers to focus on hosting a successful event. This person should review the lightning safety plan and become familiar with the script for announcements to visitors and any warning and clear-all signals to be used.

Monitor weather reports daily leading up to events. This way, venue staff can be well prepared to implement the lightning safety plan or make changes to the plan based on these reports. There are several ways to find information on local weather. Resources such as lightning detection apps, television news coverage, cable and satellite news programming or alerts and watches from Environment Canada or the Canadian Lightning Detection Network (CLDN) are all great sources for information.

Weather providers such as DTN also offer services that deliver real-time, location specific forecasts, lightning display, and thunderstorm information. This service can monitor the weather for your event and provide timely alerts to help you make the decision to evacuate.

Three: know the warning signs
Most importantly, remember that lightning awareness begins at the first signs of lightning threat, no matter how far away the storm appears. Dark skies, thunder rumbles or lightning flashes, storm alerts and even rain all indicate that lightning may be near. In some instances, lightning can strike far from a thunderstorm, perceivably from blue sky and without rainfall. As soon as thunder is heard, it is recommended that staff prepare for evacuation.

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