Recreation Management - April 2001

by Jenny E. Beeh

Location:  Northeast Park in Park Ridge, Ill.

Date:  1996

Re:  A 20-year-old referee is struck and killed by lightning during a youth soccer game; others are injured.

Transcript:  A rogue lightning bolt struck the college student.  10 minutes after a storm had passed.  At the time, the strike was described as "rogue" because weather experts indicated that such strikes were rare and not likely to reoccur.


In the year after the man's death, the Park Ridge Park District installed lightning predictors throughout the city.  The local Rotary Club, youth baseball league and Indian Guides groups raised the $50,000 for the new system.  While other U.S. parks and golf courses have similar equipment, Park Ridge was the first community in the country to establish a citywide prediction system.

"We were the first to have a multiple-site installation," says Bill Neumann, park district supervisor of development and operations in Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb with a population of about 36,000.  The system has evolved since its installation in 1997.  "We've gone through the engineering changes with the company," he says.

Consisting of three base stations and 18 alarm locations units, Park Ridge's system was made by Thor Guard, Inc. in Sunrise, Fla.

"It senses the conditions that could produce lightning," says Jim Lange, park district director.  "It, works wonderfully.  It's using technology to improve the quality of safety at the parks."

Unlike a detection system that detects lightning as it strikes - often too late to give much warning - Park Ridge's prediction system tracks storm activity, constantly monitoring for the potential for lightning.  Using electronic sensors, it measures static electricity in the atmosphere.  When conditions are prime for lightning, the device sounds a long, air-horn-like blast, giving people warning and allowing them to take cover.  Flashing strobe lights remain on to alert someone who has just arrived on the scene or the hearing-impaired. Once conditions change, and the storm moves on, an all clear is signaled by three short blasts, and the lights turn off.

So far, the city has had good luck with the system.

"It's another tool for park users, and it shouldn't be a substitute for common sense," Neumann says.  "We have to avoid complete dependence on a mechanical system - you still have to be aware.  But if it's used properly, it can be a good thing.  It's a wonderful invention, and it can only get better."

One innovation Park Ridge is hoping for is a central monitor that would allow supervisors to check all parts of the city from the main park office.  Currently, they have no central way of finding out if an alert has sounded in another part of the city.

Eerily, on the evening of the system's dedication ceremony, exactly one year to the day of the 1996 tragedy, the new Thor Guard equipment sounded at one of the city's parks where youth baseball teams were warming up.  Although there was no indication of severe weather, 10 minutes after the warning sounded and the fields had been cleared, lightning struck the field.  Luckily, everyone had time to take cover, and no one was hurt.

For more information

Thor Guard: 888-571-1212 

The Lightning Round

You really do have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery - actually, a one in 250,000 to 400,000 chance in any given year in the United States.

A lightning strike may seem like an infrequent and random act, but in reality, lightning kills more Americans each year than tornadoes, floods and hurricanes combined.

On average, there are probably 1,500 to 2,000 thunderstorms active around the world at any moment, with an estimated 100 lightning occurrences every second, with about 25 strikes to the ground every second.

Of the 40 million lightning strikes per year in the United States, about 400 of those strikes hit people, killing half and seriously injuring the other half, though the statistics vary.

Outdoor recreation facilities account for the highest percentage of lightning fatalities.  For most areas of the country, lightning probably hit the ground about 5,000 times in a year within a 10-mile area surrounding your facility.  In Florida or Texas, the frequency is two to three times higher.

While highly variable, the average lightning strike has a peak current of about 30,000 amps.  The core of a lightning bolt can reach an estimated 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, six times hotter than the surface of the sun.

By holding an umbrella, standing under a tree, swinging a golf club or batting with an aluminum bat, you are turning yourself into a lightning rod.

Early detection systems can be key in preventing injuries and damage.  With a warning system in place, staff members can be alerted to an approaching storm, dangerous areas can be cleared, and people can take cover.

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