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Education feature: Online apps help warn of lightning strikes

Staff writer

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Lightning warnings can be a fickle thing, with repeated evacuations and “all clear” messages giving athletes and fans the impression they’re in a real life version of Chicken Little, or something else.

Eastern New Mexico University Athletic Director Jeff Geiser recalled one such scenario when the Greyhound football team faced Southern Nazarene University. It was a sunny day at Greyhound Stadium, but a storm about 25 miles away near Melrose tripped the school’s warning system multiple times. The game ended around 1 a.m.

“It was like the ‘Groundhog Day’ of football,” Geiser said. “It seemed to never end.”

But Geiser knows the serious threat lightning poses. Last Wednesday, he sent ENMU coaches the story of an Aug. 19 lightning strike at Pichaco Middle School in Las Cruces that put four people in the hospital. That same night, the Greyhounds’ football scrimmage was delayed 45 minutes because of lightning strikes.

More than a week after the Las Cruces lightning strike, one 13-year-old remains under care at El Paso Children’s Hospital. The other three were released from the hospital the same day, and the football team resumed practice Monday. The lightning struck while the players were clearing the field.

Area schools rely on online applications that give satellite positioning of storm systems. Geiser said the system responsible for the game delays in 2010 was based on barometric pressure, and he soon talked to the Lone Star Conference about changing the system. The conference and ENMU eventually went with the Telvent system.

Clovis High Athletic Trainer Chris Seymour said staff at Clovis Municipal Schools uses the Weatherbug app, which also tracks systems via satellite.

“We subscribe to the service,” Geiser said of Telvent. “We’ve got Portales High on the same system, because it’s a one-time fee. We’re going to get a text message if there’s lightning within 30 miles; we get an advisory. We get another message for lightning within10 miles; that’s a warning.”

Once the warning is issued, the public address announcer reads from a prepared script for that sport and fans and athletes are required to clear the premises. Athletes are moved to shelter or an indoor facility, depending on the sport and its facilities, and fans are advised to find cover or wait out the storm in their vehicles.

The coach must make a determination on whether to grab equipment that could be stolen if left out, but the policy advises to put safety before capital items that can be replaced.

The action is not allowed to resume until an “all clear” text is received. That comes, both Geiser and Seymour said, when there has been no lightning strike within 10 miles in the previous 30 minutes.

Fullerton said Clovis High has a similar policy for evacatuions and “all clear” notifications. If the conditions are persistent, Fullerton said, the decision on resuming, “ends up being up to the officials. You can either postpone it or call it.”

Fullerton said officials have the latitude to postpone the game at any point, or call it if the game is in the second half. Clovis won a game over La Cueva, 8-7, in 2008, after officials called the game prior to the fourth quarter. The scenario upset the visiting Bears, who had a possession in Clovis territory to start the fourth quarter.