Public Risk - November/December 1997

by, Steven K. Meyer

A LITTLE MORE THAN ONE year ago, a tragic accident occurred on soccer field at Northeast Park in the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District. After a short rain delay in the game, the skies started clearing and a referee decided to resume play. A rogue lightening bolt-some called it a "bolt out of the blue"-struck a young man named John Scott Wade, CPR and quick medical attention couldn't save him.

Four groups, the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District, Youth Baseball, Indian Scouts and the Park Ridge Rotary Club formed a committee in an effort to minimize lightening-related injuries. Research on available lightning detection and prediction systems led them to a system used at the Atlanta Olympic Games and on golf courses nationwide.

Citywide Protection Master Alarm Control (MAC)

Committee members quickly concurred that the Thor Guard system was the best solution for Park Ridge. The system consists of sensors that measure the electrostatic charges at ground level and in the air. Lightning is created within the earth's invisible electrostatic atmosphere. The charges, which are invisible to the naked eye always build prior to lightning occurrences, When conditions indicate that lightning is probable, a signal is sent to horns which sound an eight-to- I comminute warning to clear the area and seek shelter. Ninety-seven percent of the time when the alarm system *is activated, lightning is visible within 15 to 30 minutes, Other times lightning is extremely probable, An all clear signal announces when its safe to return to the area.

Although the company had never taken on a project of this magnitude, Park Ridge agreed to be the first to test a citywide lightning prediction covering all parks, schools and playing fields.

Decisions and Dollars Matters of zones, times of operation, testing, noise levels and installation procedures needed to be worked out. The special projects technician for the parks department became the district liaison and worked on coordinating installation.

The system would cover 18 park and school sites in three zones. The committee decided the system should be operational from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on a daily basis from April to November, with horns and systems to be tested monthly during the operational period.

The committee also began fund raising efforts to cover the projected cost of $55,000. Support for the system was citywide.

Donations came from youth and adult sports teams, school districts and PTOs, service organizations, local hospitals, the United Way and the city itself.

Instant Benefits

One year after the deadly bolt struck John Scott Wade, the new system was installed and dedicated in his memory, Ironically, less than two hours after the dedication of the system, on June 20 of this year, the warning alarm was activated at Hinkley Park, interrupting organized baseball and volleyball games. Baseball officials and park district staff cleared the fields and courts as instructed. Ten minutes later, lightning stuck the middle of the baseball diamond, knocking out a light pole and an irrigation system. One boy who cleared the baseball diamond said he felt the lightning from where he sought shelter.

Had the warning signal not been activated, had the system not been operational, would there have been another tragic event? Three people were injured and one killed by lightning that night in the Chicago area. Thankfully, due to the foresight and planning of the committee and the generous donations from the community, no one in Park Ridge was injured.

Ninety-seven percent of the time when the alarm system is activated, lightning is visible within 15 to 30 minutes.

Steven K. Meyer is director of the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District in Park Ridge, III.

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