John Doherty

Photo of John Doherty

This past weekend, the nation was glued to its televisions and computer screens tracking the weather story of the summer, Hurricane Dorian.

The weekend before, though, there was another weather-related story that received far less notice but was far more instructive for the sports-minded population.

At the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta during the PGA’s Tour Championship on Saturday, third-round play was suspended due to approaching inclement weather at 4:17 p.m. Players were cleared from the course but fans only were advised to do so.

Minutes later — 28 to be exact — but long enough for those fans to get to nearby buildings or their cars, lightning struck a tree near the 16th green. The resulting debris injured six spectators who were attended to by paramedics. Fortunately, none of the injuries were life-threatening.

That wasn’t the case in 1991, in Carmel during the PGA Championship, when lightning did kill a spectator.

In this age of municipal lightning detection systems and smartphone weather apps, lightning may still be hazardous to trees. But it should not be to athletes and those watching them play.

As autumn approaches, weather in the Region is likely — as usual — to become more unsettled. Football games, soccer matches and cross country meets will, at times, be at risk.

Last year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), to which the IHSA and IHSAA belong, published the following revised guidelines for practices and games when thunder and/or lightning are present:

1. Assign staff to monitor local weather conditions before and during practices and contests.

2. Develop an evacuation plan, including identification of appropriate nearby safer areas and determine the amount of time needed to get everyone to a designated safer area. A designated safer place is a substantial building with plumbing and wiring where people live or work, such as a school, gymnasium or library. An alternate safer place from the threat of lightning is a fully enclosed (not convertible or soft top) metal car or school bus.

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3. Develop criteria for suspension and resumption of play:

a. When thunder is heard or lightning is seen, the leading edge of the thunderstorm is close enough to strike your location with lightning. Suspend play for at least 30 minutes and vacate the outdoor activity to the previously designated safer location immediately. 

b. 30-minute rule. Once play has been suspended, wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder is heard or lightning is witnessed prior to resuming play.

c. Any subsequent thunder or lightning after the beginning of the 30-minute count will reset the clock and another 30-minute count should begin.

d. When lightning-detection devices or mobile phone apps are available, this technology could be used to assist in making a decision to suspend play if a lightning strike is noted to be within 10 miles of the event location. However, you should never depend on the reliability of these devices and, thus, hearing thunder or seeing lightning should always take precedence over information from a mobile app or lightning-detection device.

Note: At night, under certain atmospheric conditions, lightning flashes may be seen from distant storms. In these cases, it may be safe to continue an event. If no thunder can be heard and the flashes are low on the horizon, the storm may not pose a threat. Independently verified lightning detection information would help eliminate any uncertainty.

4. Review the lightning safety policy annually with all administrators, coaches and game personnel and train all personnel.

5. Inform student-athletes and their parents of the lightning policy at start of the season.

Not specifically included in these guidelines is advice to “inform spectators.” Prior to any contest where inclement weather is likely, an announcement should be made to the fans that evacuation to a safe location — and where that safe place actually is — may be required and if that becomes the case, remaining in the stands will not be allowed.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.