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.

Therefore, it is critical that weather support for a campus include a thorough understanding of the risks to each event held on campus, and a capability to expertly monitor the weather against these diverse hazards.  In addition, the weather portion of a campus emergency plan cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, the weather support and decision making for a football game will need to be different from that of a homecoming parade. The weather support for an outdoor donor event with portable tents will need to be different than that of a campus-wide service activity.

To truly become weather-ready, each campus should conduct a comprehensive assessment of every activity that takes place and develop customized plans for each one. Safety administrators should train each event organizer regarding how to utilize available weather information against the most likely weather risks to the safety of the event. Then, the weather should be monitored during the event to ensure the safety of all participants.

The Risk Is Real; Take It Seriously

At the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Okla., the Office of Emergency Preparedness has teamed a full-time meteorologist with the campus emergency preparedness manager, fire marshal and police chief to develop comprehensive safety plans against high impact weather of all types. To achieve the goal of creating a more weather-ready campus, the OU Office of Emergency Preparedness has embarked upon a multi-faceted weather safety program

RELATED: 7 Key Elements of The University of Oklahoma’s Weather Safety Program

Is this type of approach to weather safety an over-reaction? Not when you consider the risk.

For example, the week before fall classes start during Sooner orientation week alone, OU sponsors more than two-dozen outdoor events ranging from campus tours to ice cream socials and outdoor movie events. These events occur at every hour of the day, from early morning until late at night.

More importantly, the primary weather risks to the participants of these events are not the types of weather that would result in a formal NWS weather warning. Weather threats to these events consist of everything from mid-afternoon heat to the possibility of lightning. Even brief heavy rains that don’t result in widespread flooding (hence, no flood warning) could be sufficient to collapse a portable tent being used for an outdoor event.

How extensive is this risk? An informal census of campus activities at OU indicates the school has over 300 events during the school year where weather could pose a hazard to life and property. Multiply this schedule across all campuses in our nation, and you get more than 3,000,000 events annually with the potential to be weather impacted. Against this number of events, it is easier to understand the number of September weather fatalities we’ve experienced over the past two decades.

‘Weather Ready Nation’ Aims to Improve Awareness

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has unveiled its most recent strategic plan with the goal of building community resilience in the face of extreme weather. This plan, called Weather Ready Nation, is built upon the premise that the impact of extreme weather can be mitigated through improved readiness.

The Weather Ready Nation program serves the same function as orientation week on a college campus. Orientation sessions allow for teachers and administrators to socialize policies and procedures associated with the school year with each student. Given that weather hazards are typically among the greatest risks to campus health and safety, Weather Ready Nation is an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of policies and procedures focused on weather preparedness in our communities.

At OU, an infrastructure is being created that motivates students and administrators alike to take weather threats seriously in hopes of creating a blueprint for the Weather Ready Campus.

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