September 6, 2013
Last night, the National Football League season started with--no, not a kickoff--but a lightning delay. While I can't imagine anyone particularly enjoyed the 34-minute delay, I commend those in charge at the NFL for making the right decision to delay the game. When this decision was made, potentially deadly cloud-to-ground lightning was observed only a few miles from the stadium. During the past 13 years, since the National Weather Service and NOAA started a nationwide campaign to reduce lightning deaths in the United States, decisions to delay or postpone outdoor activities have likely saved hundreds of lives.
In fact, 13 years ago, the United States averaged 73 deaths per year from lightning (30-year average). Now, that 30-year average is down to 53 deaths per year. More recently, during the past 5 years, this country has averaged only 29 lightning fatalities. In part, the reduction in lightning deaths can be attributed to better awareness of the lightning danger, which, in turn, has led to more informed and better decisions. Last night's delay was an example of an informed decision based on good lightning and lightning safety information. In addition, the NFL's decision to delay the game due to a thunderstorm in the area reinforces NOAA's message that lightning is dangerous and that people need to seek shelter whenever a thunderstorm is in the area--there is no place outside that is safe!
While the NFL got the players safely off the field, many fans opted not to take shelter from the lightning threat. In addition, several network broadcasters remained on the field despite the lightning delay. For the fans, the information on the stadium's message board did not really provide the public with appropriate risk information. It said, "If you feel the need, take cover in a sheltered area." A better message would have been, "For your safety, take cover in a sheltered area immediately." As for the broadcasters, being out on the field holding wired microphones and standing under large umbrellas not only put them at risk, but also sent the wrong message to their viewers and to the people in the stadium. Everything they said on the field could have been said from the safety of their booth.
Those in charge of stadiums and large venues play a vital role in keeping participants, officials, workers, and spectators safe during hazardous weather events. We've developed resources such as the Lightning Safety Toolkit for Outdoor Venues to help all these groups prepare for the threat of lightning. The media also plays an important role in getting the appropriate safety information out to the public. We appreciate all that they do to keep people informed and safe from this potential killer.
Lightning Safety Specialist
National Weather Service, NOAA
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