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Weather Safety at Venues and Public Gatherings

An Information Statement of the American Meteorological Society
(Adopted by AMS Council on 3 May 2018)

Motivation

Each year, millions of Americans invest time and money to attend sporting, entertainment, and recreational events at venues ranging in size from intimate parks to large fairgrounds and stadiums. Attendees are typically focused on the entertainer, activity, sports team, or event at hand, and less so on their surroundings. Situational awareness can be compromised when hazardous weather threatens, and in the worst of cases, loss of life has occurred. In addition, at many indoor events, and almost all outdoor events, sheltering options against life-threatening weather are limited or nonexistent. In the U.S., hazardous weather kills attendees at entertainment venues each year, and litigation in these instances exceeds tens of millions of dollars.

 

A common theme in the after-action reports and service assessments for these disasters is that the weather plan was inadequate to deal with a comprehensive portfolio of weather risk, or a weather plan didn’t exist. In many instances, organizers simply “hoped that we wouldn’t get hit.” Reducing the weather risk to life and property at venues and public gatherings is a priority for the weather enterprise and the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Knowledge of, and investment in, pre-event planning and mitigation serves the nation economically as well as socially. The purpose of this statement is to qualify the need and highlight successful proactive weather-decision practices within the broader weather and venue communities.

 

Tragedies involving weather at venues have been documented for most of the past century:

 

  • Two fatalities occurred in Yankee Stadium on 19 May 1929, when umpires waited too long to safely delay completion of a game in the face of a severe thunderstorm that brought torrential rains, hail, mass panic, and a stampede as fans raced for the exits.
  • On 5 May 1995, a supercell thunderstorm with grapefruit-sized hail injured 200, dozens permanently, at the MayFest Arts Festival in Fort Worth, TX.
  • A tornado hit the Atlanta Motor Speedway on 6 July 2005. Another tornado hit the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA, during the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament on 14 March 2008. Millions of dollars of damage occurred in these instances. Luckily, the fans were indoors at the Georgia Dome, and no event was occurring when the Speedway was hit.
  • A downburst destroyed the Dallas Cowboys football training facility on 2 May 2009, resulting in a dozen life-altering injuries, and 34 million dollars paid out to families in damages.
  • Seven fatalities occurred on 13 August 2011, when an outflow boundary toppled a concert stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. As of this writing, over 50 million dollars in damages have been awarded to the families of the victims, with millions more yet to be litigated.
  • Lightning killed a spectator at the Pocono Raceway on 5 August 2012, and injured seven more after a National Football League game on 21 December 2014, in Tampa, FL.
  • On 17 April 2015, winds tore through a circus tent in Angleton, TX, resulting in several injuries and led to a lifelong fear of events of this type for the children in attendance. Later that same year on 3 August, a father and daughter were killed, and dozens were injured when winds tore through a circus tent in Lancaster, NH. On the day before the New Hampshire circus fatalities, the same storm system killed a father in front of his family when a tent collapsed in high winds at the Wood Dale Prairie Fest in suburban Chicago, IL.

The most dramatic weather toll at an event in U.S. history was during a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado on 15 August 1993. Several deaths occurred and tens of thousands more fell ill due to exposure to heat, lack of shade, and dehydration. In addition, the deadly intersection of vulnerable venues and weather is also an international problem:

  • Storm-related injuries and damage occurred on 17 July 2011 at the Ottawa Blues Festival in Canada.
  • On 18 August 2011, five were killed and 140 were injured when severe storms ripped through the Pukkelpop Music Festival in Belgium.
  • Over 80 concert-goers were injured by lightning at the Rock Am Ring Festival in Germany on 4 June 2016.

Proactive Planning and Decision-Making Saves Lives

Although many fatalities and injuries have occurred at venues and large gatherings, there are also numerous success stories where proactive venue operators working closely with weather professionals have averted disaster in the face of approaching life-threatening weather. Common practices during these success stories include:

 

  • Having a professional meteorologist forecast and monitor the weather to proactively support a comprehensive weather plan on behalf of life safety.
  • Identifying the appropriate staff at each venue who used basic guidelines set forth in the NOAA/NWS Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) and/or StormReady Programs, and implemented the concept of an integrated warning team.
  • Having each venue staffed using a decision-tree hierarchy where everyone knew their responsibilities in advance (as well as their backups). There was also a responsible and trained professional in charge of maintaining situational awareness and making weather-related decisions before, during, and after the event.
  • Generating a weather plan in advance with an actionable set of decision triggers against a portfolio of weather risk, with a process to routinely evaluate and update the plan.
  • Designation of nearest safe structures and accommodation for ample time for patrons to reach these locations when high-impact weather threatened. 
  •  Creation of  clear mechanisms for communicating weather risk among all elements of the event (organizers, visitors, participants, local emergency management, etc.) and a mass-communication plan to notify the patrons at risk.

 

Specific examples of successful application of these practices include:

 

  • On 16 June 2007, the rural StormReady community of Glasgow, MT, used the best practices learned through the program to evacuate 700 people from the fairgrounds and another 200 from a powwow. The emergency manager was aware of a threatening supercell thunderstorm and coordinated with the local National Weather Service (NWS) office. The fairgrounds and powwow were evacuated with 45 minutes of lead time. The storm did $35 million dollars in damage and left a 285-mile-long hail swath.  No injuries occurred during the storm which had >85 mph winds and hail up to baseball-size. Both the emergency manager and the sheriff were recognized as StormReady Heroes.
  • On 1 May 2010, the NWS Office in Memphis, TN working with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, used a predetermined plan and decision triggers to proactively and safely evacuate 30,000 concert-goers from the Beale Street Music Festival in the face of historic flooding of the Mississippi River and recurring severe weather threats.
  • On 13 August 2011, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra used information from an American weather industry provider, government weather warnings, and a proactive weather plan with decision triggers to evacuate several thousand patrons from an exposed outdoor amphitheater at Connor Prairie, IN. Eight minutes after the safe evacuation of this facility occurred, seven  people were killed across town at the Indiana State Fairgrounds as strong winds toppled the stage as the band Sugarland was about to perform. In contrast to the Symphony, the Indiana State Fairgrounds had no actionable plan with which to make a safety decision regarding the weather threat that evening.
  • On 4 September 2011, West Virginia University implemented a plan to successfully evacuate 60,000 spectators to safety when severe weather threatened during the Friends of Coal Bowl football game between West Virginia University and Marshall University. As part of becoming a StormReady university, a plan for hazardous weather was developed with the NWS Office in Pittsburgh, PA in the months before and university staff attended SKYWARN spotter training.  On the morning of the event, the NWS informed local emergency management regarding the threat for lightning that day. The venue made proactive announcements about the potential for severe weather and gave spectators ample time to evacuate. 
  • On 24 September 2016, an outdoor music festival with ~30,000 attendees at the Texas Motor Speedway was approached twice by lightning storms. Organizers proactively attended weather event safety classes and learned how to develop customized weather-decision triggers for their venue.  During the first round of storms, lightning was accurately anticipated to be a threat, and organizers working with private-sector professional meteorologists implemented a safe evacuation. Upon safe resumption of the event later that evening, a second round of storms developed. Meteorologists working with venue organizers expertly determined that the second round posed no threat to the venue. The quick application of weather expertise allowed for the safe completion of the festival with no additional delay.
  • On 15 January 2017, the Dallas Cowboys used expertise gained from participation in a weather safety summit for event managers, created a weather plan, enlisted the services of an American weather industry provider, and used NWS weather warnings to safely shelter a National Football Conference Divisional Playoff game crowd ready to depart into a life-threatening tornadic storm nearby.  That same evening the National Football League took the unprecedented action of changing the kickoff time for the American Football Conference Divisional Playoff game in order to avoid a dangerous ice storm and its potential risk to traveling fans.

Available Resources

Fatalities, injuries, and/or damage have occurred at venues due to lightning, wind gusts, extreme heat, hail, flooding, ice and snow, extreme cold, tornadoes, and hurricanes. It is important for venue operators and event organizers to be situationally aware of every weather risk that can occur, and proactively plan to mitigate those risks. The expertise within our nation’s weather enterprise is positioned to play a leadership role in responding to this important need. In addition, partnerships are being forged between the weather enterprise and the sporting and entertainment event industry to help raise awareness of the importance of weather planning and the use of weather-decision triggers to ensure life safety.

 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Weather Service has prioritized impact-based decision support services (IDSS) as part of the WRN strategic plan. Entertainment and sporting entities and associated venues have access to relevant NWS tools such as the Lightning Safety Toolkit, and they can increase their weather readiness by applying for the StormReady, TsunamiReady, and Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador programs. These programs stress the importance of having an integrated warning team involved in proactive weather planning and public readiness; offer guidance on preparedness and weather monitoring; instruct how to access weather warning information; and conduct training and weather drills and exercises.

 

America’s weather industry develops and deploys increasingly sophisticated planning, monitoring, and warning services for venues and events. Industry providers offer customized weather forecasting and modeling, monitoring, and hazard notification tied to the specific needs of the venue or event. Many of these firms also offer direct access to meteorologists or onsite meteorological services to support weather decision-making at large events and gatherings.

 

The operational weather forecasters and event safety specialists in the AMS have forged important partnerships to learn more about the weather needs of venue operators and event organizers. Although research at the intersection of weather hazards and human behavior is still needed, these partnerships have provided a significant set of guides and resources for weather and venue professionals alike. These include the Event Safety Guide authored by the Event Safety Alliance, the Best Practices Guides provided by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, the National Collegiate Athletics Association Sports Medicine Handbook, and event weather safety classes offered by the Event Safety Alliance, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, and the International Association of Venue Managers.

 

The AMS university community has also committed resources to develop expertise in this area. Several universities have created incident meteorologist or university meteorologist positions in their respective emergency operations centers to assist in weather-decision support for hundreds of university/college outdoor events such as athletics events and graduations (e.g., the University of Oklahoma, the University of Texas at Austin, North Carolina State University, and the University of Notre Dame). Many other universities have used meteorological expertise from their own faculty or contracted with America’s weather industry providers on an event-by-event basis.

 

AMS has created an Emergency Management Committee within the Commission on the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise. The mission of the Committee is to address challenges, opportunities, and issues centered on the topic of weather information and its use for decision-making purposes. The AMS recognizes the need to expand collaboration, cooperation, and mutual understanding between the weather enterprise and practitioners and researchers across federal, state, academic, private, and local interests, especially where weather safety at venues and large gatherings is concerned. Please contact the AMS for more information. (amsinfo@ametsoc.org)

 

[This statement is considered in force until May 2023 unless superseded by a new statement issued by the AMS Council before this date.]