New technology could protect students from lightning strikes

But, the GHSA does not specify how close lightning has to be before a stadium or field is cleared. Severe Weather Team 2’s Katie Walls was surprised to learn how close lightning is allowed before an area is evacuated.

Walls reached out to Dr. Steven Kane, sports medicine advisor to Atlanta Public Schools and chairman of the Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program at Atlanta Medical Center, who uses the National Athletic Trainers’ Association position on lightning safety for athletics and recreation for guidance.

“If electrical activity is outside of the 6 mile radius, it’s considered to be safe. Once it comes inside that 6 mile radius, we are clearing the stadium,” said Kane. “This year I’ve recommended that if it’s within 10 miles, we warn the patrons of the stadium that although we are not emptying the stadium at this point, there is thunder activity within that 10 mile radius.”

Kane says such safety protocols are evaluated annually.

Walls traveled to Creekview High School in Cherokee County, where a new permanent lightning detector was installed in May.

Dr. Kevin Higgins, vice principal and athletic director for Creekview High School, told Walls that he began detecting disparities in his handheld lightning detectors several years ago. “It started about three years ago. We had some issues with our handheld devices, some inconsistencies with them and concerns from coaches and parents,” said Higgins.  

Higgins didn’t take those concerns lightly. He and the county researched for three years before deciding on a THOR GUARD system, the only one of its kind in Cherokee County.

“We are technically a pilot for the other schools. And we’re going to evaluate how it works and then the county office will be able to determine what they want to do with the other schools,” says Higgins.

It took financial help from boosters and careful budgeting to install the $9,000 system, which alerts 3,200 students across the middle and high school campuses when lightning is within 10 miles.

Walls reached out to Clayton County Public Schools, which also use the 6 mile threshold to clear a field or stadium. “We do have lightning detectors at each middle and high school; We also have detectors in our stadiums,” said Jada Dawkins, director of communications with Clayton County Public Schools.

The Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Department of Communication and Media Relations Executive Director, Sloan Roach, responded, “Our lightning detection devices have ranges, so when the 6-10 mile range indicator goes off, we stop play and proceed with our severe weather plans, which will vary based on the location).” Roach added, “With increased technology, we (coaches, trainers, athletic directors) also use cellphones to track severe weather. The GHSA has approved the use of cellphone apps for this purpose.”

Jennifer Gates, assistant director for the Cobb County School District Communications Office, told Channel 2 each high school is equipped with Schneider Electric lightning detectors.

“Each school has access on their smartphones for this service, which gives them detailed information on all weather-related events including lightning. The schools use this for lightning, tornado warnings, heat index, wet bulb global temps, etc,” Gates wrote in an email to Walls. “We do have grounded light poles that offer protection. One of our high schools, Kennesaw Mountain High School, has lightning rods on all buildings.”

"Each school has lightning detectors at each sporting event.  If the storm is within 3-5 miles, the competition will be halted.  Ultimately, the decision is made by the officials once a game has started.  The officials have control during the game, the school has control prior to the game,” said Susan Hale with Fulton County Schools.  

Walls reached out to several other school districts and is awaiting their responses.

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