Protecting Large Outdoor Campus Events from Weather Threats

With the United States experiencing an average of 38 deaths each September as the direct result of inclement weather, it makes sense for campuses to plan for and respond appropriately to these risks.

For most meteorologists, the scene of Adam Sandler singing the “Back to School” song in the movie “Billy Madison” is a microcosm of our own apprehension as September rolls around. While spring tornados, winter ice storms and summer hurricanes tend to grab the weather headlines, the fall semester brings a cornucopia of weather risks that can be more subtle but equally deadly.

Over the past 20 years, our nation has experienced an average of 38 deaths each September directly due to weather. This average eclipses the number of weather fatalities in springtime months like March, and winter months like December and February. School campuses are not immune as September fatalities have occurred due to every imaginable threat, including tornados, hurricanes, lightning, heat illness, and even school bus accidents in light rain and drizzle.

The vast array of weather threats in September requires increased vigilance, as outdoor activities are typically the hallmark of the beginning of a new school year.

Most Colleges Aren’t ‘Storm Ready’

Since records of weather fatalities have been kept, there has never been a month of September without a U.S. weather fatality. Therefore, campus weather monitoring and weather safety planning must be as ubiquitous as a teacher making an annual list of school supplies that students must procure to succeed. 

With its roots in the Tulsa National Weather Service (NWS) office in 1998, the NWS Storm Ready program provided an initial supply list for communities and campuses to improve their severe weather preparedness. Over the past 16 years, 148 university campuses have been recognized as Storm Ready. In order to achieve this recognition, a university must demonstrate the ability to acquire and communicate NWS warning information, have backup capabilities to receive weather warning information, and provide community preparedness training as well as create a hazardous weather operations plan.

Although the Storm Ready program is increasing the awareness of weather hazards on select campuses across the nation, there is still much work to be done. Nationwide, there are nearly 10,000 university campuses hosting millions of students. In other words, 99% of U.S. university campuses are not Storm Ready.

Don’t Only Rely on NWS Warnings

Where weather is concerned, one of the challenges for providing a safe campus environment is that most decision makers understand the traditional form of communicating weather risk – the “warning.” Whether it is a severe thunderstorm, flood or tornado warning, many campus emergency plans base preventive and protective actions (i.e. siren blows, sheltering decisions, athletic event cancellations, etc.) on official warnings from the NWS. Although the lead-time for these warnings typically provides ample time (about 15 minutes) for a protective action by an individual or family, they do not provide enough lead-time to proactively and completely evacuate an entire homecoming parade route, a football stadium or a large academic gathering such as graduation or commencement.

Given that the Storm Ready program focuses on the receipt of NWS warning information, universities hosting events with large crowds must supplement warnings with a capability to accurately anticipate hazardous weather conditions prior to the issuance of a warning. If decision makers rely solely on a NWS warning before taking action, a large number of people on our campuses will be frequently exposed to weather risk.

Further complicating local decisions are the criteria that prompt a NWS warning in the first place. In the instance of a severe thunderstorm warning, its issuance is predicated on the anticipation or detection of 58 mph or stronger winds, one-inch or larger diameter hailstones, or a tornado. 

Severe thunderstorm conditions are certainly life threatening, but there are many other risks to a campus that are equally dangerous for which warnings are not issued by the NWS. These include lightning and sub-58 mph winds that could still cause damage to temporary or portable facilities such as those at football game-day tailgates. For example, neither lightning nor potentially dangerous 50 mph winds would result in an official NWS warning. Yet, these two hazards have caused fatalities on college campuses.

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