Facilities Planning

Thunderstorm Safety and Outdoor Events

The potential for thunderstorms during any outdoor event, including sporting events and practice, must be taken seriously and closely monitored. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, approximately 100 fatalities and up to 500 injuries requiring medical attention occur each year from lightning strikes throughout the United States. When conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms in your area, the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a thunderstorm watch. Once a thunderstorm has been spotted and the storm is imminent in your area, the watch is upgraded to a warning. While these terms may appear elementary, preparing for a thunderstorm requires an understanding and appreciation of the actual threat. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) issued revised guidelines and recommendations in 1998 related to lightning safety during sporting events. The following key points are noted within the NCAA's guideline:

  • Designate someone to monitor local weather conditions, as well as someone who will make the decision to remove participants and spectators from an athletic site or event.
  • Local weather reports should be obtained prior to each practice and event. (It is suggested that weather be monitored by way of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, local television, or radio stations) Avoid using the telephone except in the event of an emergency.
  • Thunder always accompanies lightning. The "flash-to-bang" method may be used to estimate how far away the lightning is actually occurring. This method involves calculating the time between the time lightning is seen and thunder is heard by counting the seconds from the point at which lightning is sighted to the point at which thunder is heard. Divide this number by five to obtain the number of miles away the lightning is actually occurring. It does not have to be raining for lightning to strike. Lightning can strike from as far as 10 miles away from the rain band.
  • If someone can see lightning or hear thunder, they are already at risk and should take shelter immediately. Certainly if there is less than 30 seconds between lightning and thunder, all individuals should have already left the athletic site and reached a safe location. Outdoor activities should not resume until at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or sound of thunder.
  • Know the location of the closest safe structure to the playing field and how long it takes to get there. Safe structures include buildings normally occupied or frequently used by people, such a facility with plumbing and/or electrical wiring that acts to electrically ground the structure. If a safe structure is unavailable, a vehicle with a hard metal roof and rolled-up windows can provide a measure of safety. Do NOT touch the sides of the vehicle.
  • Avoid tall trees and other tall objects, such as light-poles and flagpoles. Avoid metal fences, metal bleachers, standing pools of water, picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, and open fields. Avoid being the highest object in a field.

For further assistance on school emergency planning issues, please contact your local BOCES Health and Safety Office or Laura Sahr at 518-474-3906 or lsahr@mail.nysed.gov.

Last Updated: January 17, 2014