Severe weather safety
Figure 1: Ingress Photo by Brad Jakubowski

Severe Weather and Lightning Safety

By Brad Jakubowski

Weather is a critical component of a sports field manager’s daily responsibilities. When the weather is behaving well, it makes life easier, when it isn’t, life can become very troublesome – even dangerous.

Every year, many people are killed or seriously injured by thunderstorms despite advanced warning. The following information is intended to help sports field managers become more aware of the potential hazards associated with severe weather, and to provide guidelines for making storm-related safety decisions.

Thunderstorms are relatively small in size – averaging 15 miles in diameter – and last an average of 30 minutes. Despite their small size, all thunderstorms are dangerous. On average, the United States experiences about 100,000 thunderstorms each year, and 10% are classified as severe (1-inch hail, winds of 58 mph or greater or a tornado). Thunderstorms produce many hazards, including floods/flash floods, tornadoes and lightning.

Floods/flash floods

  • The number one cause of deaths associated with thunderstorms.
  • Most fatalities occur at night, and most victims are people who become trapped in automobiles.
  • Six inches of fast-moving water can knock you off your feet; a depth of two feet will cause most vehicles to float.

Know your facility’s potential for flooding and the challenges associated with vehicles coming into and leaving the facility. Bottlenecks from insufficient ingress and egress routes often occur when parents are merely dropping off and/or picking up athletes for regular events. Consider the increased traffic congestion in this example with everyone moving in a panicked frame of mind (see Figure 1, above, and Figure 2, below). How would traffic proceed if everyone tried to leave at once?

Figure 2: Egress


  • Third most deadly hazard. Can occur at any time of the year and in any state.
  • In southern states, peak tornado occurrence is March through May, while peak season in northern states is May through August.
  • Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 and 9 p.m., but can occur at any time.

The best thing to do is to put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. A reinforced building can provide good shelter, but a basement provides a more substantial “wall” for your protection.

Be sure to consider what it will take to move a large number of people into reinforced buildings in a relatively short period of time. Fortunately, lead-time warnings for tornadoes have improved, and locating tornadoes is a little more predictable than our next hazard, lightning. Knowing ingress and egress routes for each facility is important as with flooding.


Lightning is the second most deadly hazard, and is the least predictable. This makes it the most dangerous severe weather hazard for sports field managers. Lightning is the discharge of electrical energy built-up between positively and negatively charged areas. These discharges can move from cloud to cloud, ground to cloud and cloud to ground. Twenty to 25 million cloud-to-ground strikes are recorded each year. Important facts to keep in mind:

  • Most lightning fatalities and injuries occur in the summer months during the afternoon and evening.
  • Lightning can strike 10 miles in advance or behind a traveling thunderstorm.
  • Each spark of lightning can generate 100 million volts and 50,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
  • Lightning occurs in all thunderstorms.

Lightning is a random, chaotic and dangerous fact of nature. Almost all lightning deaths are of people caught outside. One out of five people were engaged in a sporting activity, while another one-fifth were killed seeking shelter during the thunderstorm. The National Weather Service recommends “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.”

It is also important to obey the 30/30 Rule. Go indoors if, after seeing lightning, you cannot count to 30 before hearing thunder. Stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder.

This is an important rule to remember, because gauging the distance of lightning can be misleading. At night, lightning is easy to see and can be spotted 60 to 100 miles away. During the day it is harder to spot, and may be less than five miles away. Fortunately, many of today’s weather apps provide lightning detection functions that can help lessen the severity of lightning-caused deaths or injuries. The key, however, is having a lightning safety plan and following it without exception (surprisingly, many organizations or facilities DO NOT have a lightning safe plan). The plan should give clear and specific safety guidelines to eliminate errors in judgment. These guidelines should address the following questions.

  • When should activities be stopped?
  • Where should people go for safety?
  • When should activities be resumed?
  • Who should monitor the weather, and make the decision to stop activities?
  • What should be done if someone is struck by lightning?

Of the questions above, the one most often misunderstood is where to go? What is a safe location for members of your crew to take shelter during a lightning delay? If they are working in the field, it is important to take shelter in a glass-enclosed shelter or vehicle or get as low as possible compared to the terrain around you. Gazebos and dugouts are NOT SAFE. Open dugouts built with chain link fences could be considered human-sized toaster ovens, and should be avoided at all costs. (See the sidebar below for examples of safe and unsafe shelters from lightning.)

Being prepared for severe weather

Being prepared means having a severe weather safety plan. The following outline was developed by the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI), and provides a framework for dealing with athletic event safety.

Lightning Safety for Organized Outdoor Athletic Events

Education is the single most important means to achieving lightning safety. A lightning safety program should be implemented at every facility. The following steps are suggested:

1. A responsible person should be designated to monitor weather conditions. A reliable and accurate weather app, NOAA Weather Radio, local weather forecasts, or local TV stations should be used prior to and during athletic events. An inexpensive portable weather radio is recommended for obtaining timely storm data as well as an inexpensive AM radio (the static you hear) for detecting unpredictable and nearby lighting strikes.

2. Suspension and resumption of athletic activities should be planned in advance. Understanding of SAFE shelters is essential. SAFE evacuation sites include:

a. Fully enclosed metal vehicles with windows up.
b. Substantial buildings with pipe-in plumbing.
c. The low ground. Seek cover in clumps of bushes.

3. Unsafe shelter areas include all outdoor metal objects such as flag poles, fences and gates, high mast light poles, metal bleachers, golf cars, machinery, etc. AVOID trees. AVOID water. AVOID open fields. AVOID the high ground. AVOID dugouts (they are connected to metal objects).

4. Lightning’s distance from you is easy to calculate: if you hear thunder, it and the associated lightning are within auditory range – about 6 to 8 miles or less away. Ask yourself why you should NOT go to shelter immediately. Of course, different distances to shelter will determine different times to suspend activities.

A good lightning safety motto is, “If you can see it (lightning) flee it; if you can hear it (thunder), clear it.”

5. If you feel your hair standing on end, and/or hear “crackling noises,” you are in lightning’s electric field. If caught outside during close-in lightning, immediately remove metal objects, place your feet together, duck your head, and crouch down low in baseball catcher’s stance with hands on knees.

6. Wait a minimum of 30 minutes from the last observed lightning or thunder before resuming activities.

7. People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge and are safe to handle. Apply first aid immediately (CPR) if you are qualified to do so. Get emergency help promptly.

Once a plan is in place, it is crucial that drills be conducted to ensure its success. Double check that there is ample space for all people considered, and that distances to the safety facilities match warning and evacuation lead times. Proper training and clearly defined procedures will help ensure success whenever severe weather threatens. A bare-bones procedure is still much better than none at all. Try to decide prior to any game or activity what that procedure will be.

If you have questions about safety guidelines and procedures, some available resources are as follows:

  • National Lightning Safety Institute (NSLI):, which includes “Decision Tree for Personal Lightning Safety” and “Lightning Safety for Organized Athletic Events”
  • NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook Lightning Safety Guideline
  • NOAA/National Weather Service:    

Also, don’t hesitate to check with other sport field managers. They either have the same questions and concerns as you, or have gone through the process of developing a plan. Good luck and stay safe!

Brad Jakubowski is a turfgrass and irrigation instructor with Penn State University. He is a certified irrigation technician with the Irrigation Association and is an author and presenter covering multiple management areas within the turfgrass industry. He focuses his time on teaching best irrigation practices and troubleshooting, weather-based management decisions, soils and plant nutrition.

Safe / Not Safe

Locations and their relative safety from lightning

This gazebo is not safe because lightning can travel along the structure and by following a path of least resistance, spread into the open area.         
Would you feel safe in this dugout during a lightning storm?
This restroom in enclosed and has plumbing. It provides a grounded and safe electrical path. (Be sure not to hold on to any of the fixtures or be using the facilities!)
Because of their open cabins, both the open tractor (above) and golf cart (below) are not safe from lightning.
This tractor offers safety from lightning with the enclosed cabin.
Photos provided by Brad Jakubowski