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Charlotte-area teams keep eyes on weather safety

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Aug. 06, 2012

Lightning is a common occurrence in a hot Carolinas summer, and it not something to be trifled with at sports events.

Most area teams, organizations and leagues contacted Monday by The Observer have severe weather policies in place that have one thing in common: If lightning is seen (or known to be nearby), the game is stopped and spectators are ordered to take cover.

“Thunder puts us on high alert,” said Wade Leaphart, general manager of Major League Lacrosse’s Charlotte Hounds. “But we don’t mess around with lightning.”

The Hounds’ policy is fairly typical: Leaphart said if any lightning is seen, the game is immediately stopped and fans are instructed over the public-address system to take cover in the concourses of Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.

There is then a 30-minute wait from the last lightning strike before fans can return to the stands and the game can be resumed. If there is more lightning within that time frame, another 30-minute wait is required.

Pro soccer’s Charlotte Eagles and baseball’s Charlotte Knights have similar policies.

The decision to stop a game is usually made in conjunction with game referees (or umpires), team officials and stadium officials. An official notice from the National Weather Service about a thunderstorm watch or warning isn’t necessary.

“There’s not a direct policy from (the United Soccer Leagues) that we should do anything based on the National Weather Service,” said Eagles general manager Tom Engstrom. “But all that is taken into consideration.”

High schools

High school games in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are suspended when thunder is heard or lightning is seen, according to CMS athletics director Sue Doran.

“Teams are pulled off the field for 30 minutes,” said Doran. “If during that time, there’s thunder or lightning again, the 30-minute clock starts again.”

Doran said fans are instructed to leave the stadium to return to their cars.

“They’re told to leave the stands,” said Doran. “We can’t make them do anything but we announce there’s a storm in the area and that we’re clearing the field and they need to seek shelter. But we can’t make them do that.”

Colleges

Local colleges also have policies, going further than an NCAA rule that requires games to be stopped if lightning is seen 6 miles away. The Charlotte 49ers and Davidson both alert game officials if severe weather is in the area. Games at Charlotte must be stopped and the stadium cleared if there are 30 seconds between lightning and thunder. Various locations around campus can be used for shelter. The 49ers are also reviewing their policy for football games that will begin in 2013.

Davidson has a school policy that requires games be suspended when lightning is detected within 12 miles, although the Southern Conference’s policy is 10 miles.

North Carolina has an on-campus weather service, which helps warn spectators when lightning is within 15 miles. When the weather is within 10 miles, spectators are again warned and advised to seek shelter. When it is within 6 miles, the game is suspended.

The SEC has detailed policies about what to do when lightning is detected within specific distances of outdoor events.

Member schools are told to advise fans when lightning is detected within 10 miles of a competition site. Should fans wish to vacate the facility for safe shelter, they will be allowed to re-enter with a ticket stub.

When lightning is detected within 6 miles, the competition is suspended. Competition resumes no sooner than 30 minutes after the storm passes a 6-mile radius. Additionally, member schools are told to notify the head referee whenever lightning is detected within 15 miles of the competition site.

NFL

The NFL’s Game Operations Manual doesn’t specifically address lightning. It does say that the “league recognizes … that emergencies may arise which make a game’s completion impossible or inadvisable. Such circumstances may include … severely inclement weather.”

The NFL manual says games can be stopped if conditions pose a “threat to the safety of participants or spectators … ” The league also consults with local weather bureaus.

Golf

Lightning is always a real threat at the sprawling golf courses at PGA Tour events.

“We give as much lead time as we can if we know the weather is going to be bad,” said Kym Hougham, executive director of the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club. “If we have to get everybody evacuated at one time, it would take about 90 minutes to get everyone on buses and moving out.”

Weather warning signs are placed on all scoreboards around Quail Hollow in advance of approaching weather, generally more than one hour before it’s expected to arrive.

“We develop an evacuation plan as a tournament and in collaboration with the PGA Tour,” said Hougham. “The tour doesn’t take chances.”

Tennis

In 25 years of running pro tennis tournaments in Atlanta, Washington and now Winston-Salem, Bill Oakes has had to suspend matches due to the threat of severe weather just twice. The last time was in Atlanta several years ago. It was about 9 p.m., and radar indicated a storm approaching that packed 60 mph winds.

Oakes is particularly conscious about potential lightning strikes, since often tennis tournaments are run in temporary structures made of steel, surrounded by light poles.

Staff writers Rick Bonnell, Andrew Carter, Ron Green Jr., Joseph Person and Langston Wertz Jr. contributed

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