A weather app on an athletic director’s smartphone sounded the first warning: A lightning strike had occurred within 8 miles of Buell Stadium in Omaha.
Coaches pulled football players from the field, and the PA announcer told fans to clear the stadium.
Weather experts say improved technology over the past 25 years — like what was used at that Millard West home game and Saturday’s Nebraska game — has changed how schools respond when lightning storms brew. Greater awareness also makes a difference.
“Safety has become a much bigger issue over the years,” said John Jensenius, a Maine-based lightning expert with the National Weather Service. “(Schools) are taking action to try and keep people safe.”
The lightning delays and the eventual cancellation of Saturday’s Nebraska-Akron game brought attention to how athletic officials respond to dangerous weather.
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For athletic officials at all levels, lightning is a regular threat. More than 20 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes occur annually in the United States with roughly 300 people struck. Although the odds of being hit are relatively low — 1 out of 1.2 million — the weather service said a strike can be deadly. About 30 people are killed annually. For those who survive a strike, injuries include nerve damage and chronic pain.
Jensenius said many athletic events that are delayed because of lightning probably would have continued 25 years ago. Coaches and other athletic officials weren’t as aware of the dangers in past decades, he said, and didn’t have lightning detection devices at their fingertips.
Jensenius said he thinks a public awareness campaign launched by the weather service in 2001 also has made a difference.
NU uses a lightning-detection system called WeatherSentry.
NU follows an 8-mile rule on lightning. Any lightning strike within that radius of the venue results in a 30-minute delay in play. Any subsequent strikes within the radius restart the 30-minute clock.
Akron had just kicked off to Nebraska on Saturday when the system detected a strike within 8 miles of Memorial Stadium, which prompted Husker athletic officials to suspend play.
Nate Neuhaus, assistant director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, said national guidelines for high schools call for suspending play for 30 minutes if lightning is seen or thunder is heard. The 30-minute clock is restarted if lightning or thunder occurs again.
When phone apps or other detection devices are used, the guidelines call for suspending play if a lightning strike occurs within 10 miles of the event, although some schools go with an 8-mile radius.
Steve Eubanks, supervisor of athletics for the Omaha Public Schools, said a phone app came in handy a couple football seasons ago during a game at Burke High. Lightning was detected in the area so play was suspended, but the weather soon passed and the game resumed in about an hour.
“There are definitely more tools out there,” he said.
Jeff Novotny, athletic director at Abraham Lincoln High in Council Bluffs, agreed.
He sets the app on his phone to alert him when lightning is within 30 miles of a sporting event, enabling him tell game officials that play might have to be suspended. When the strikes get within about 10 miles, play is suspended.
Neuhaus said that smartphone apps have overtaken portable lightning detectors.
He said schools assign a staff member to monitor lightning when storms are in the forecast. Athletic directors often handle the duties, but sometimes an assistant coach, trainer or other school staff are assigned the job.
Schools also are encouraged to have plans for where to send athletes and spectators when lightning occurs.
Lance Smith, athletic director at Millard West High in Omaha, said that when lightning is detected near Buell Stadium on the Millard South campus, players are sent to the locker room and fans can either go to their cars or to a designated area inside the school.
Eubanks said OPS has similar plans for its venues, with players typically sent to locker rooms and fans to school gyms or cafeterias.
Casey Mann, executive director of Nebraska State Soccer, said players and fans often retreat to their vehicles when there are lightning delays.
He said there’s no doubt that coaches and parents are more vigilant about lightning safety than in past decades.
“It’s taken more seriously,” he said. “In the old-school days, you’d play through everything.”