It’s a warm, humid early September evening as two traditional soccer rivals take to the pitch. Late in the first half, lightning flashes several times. Despite clear protocols that any visible lightning causes a suspension of play, the game continues. The two-person officiating crew acts oblivious to the flashes in the sky. Meanwhile, the home side takes a 2-0 lead. At halftime, a storm moves in at full force with heavy rain, lightning and thunder. Finally, the game is terminated — and since the first half was completed, the result stands as official.

The above scenario actually played out at a high school game that I attended in Pennsylvania a couple years back. When asked why play wasn’t suspended when lightning was first visible, the officials claimed they hadn’t seen it.

By not suspending play when the lightning first flashed, the officials placed everyone in jeopardy.

Virtually every official who works an outdoor sport has dealt with or will deal with lightning matters. These matters should be approached with the utmost seriousness. Lightning is dangerous. Lightning can kill. In 2016, 31 lightning-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. An additional 279 injuries occurred as a result of lightning strikes.

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Lightning protocols at most levels of amateur sports are straightforward. If there is visible lightning or thunder, the contest is to be halted for a minimum of 30 minutes. If there is additional lightning or thunder during that interval, the 30-minute clock restarts.

But there are far too many stories of officials who don’t follow these protocols. Whether to appease a coach or tournament director, or simply to assure themselves of a game fee, there have been instances where officials have allowed play to go on in potentially dangerous conditions. The possible ramifications of doing so are at best sobering and at worst catastrophic.

Attorney Alan Goldberger, who writes frequently for Referee on legal issues, said when it comes to lightning issues, there are few gray areas or loopholes.

“If you can hear thunder you stop the game,” he said. “You just stop the game right away. If you see lightning, no matter how distant it is, stop the game and then from there you have the 30-minute time period and so forth. It just requires having a little bit of awareness.”

Halting play because of thunder and lightning isn’t always a popular call, but safety must rule the day.

Goldberger said officials who ignore lightning protocols are disregarding their responsibility to safeguard the welfare of the participants.

“Officials who behave in that fashion have totally lost any perspective on common sense or science,” he said, “and they ignore the basic principles of risk management.”

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Incidents like the one described above concern Mark Byers, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s chief operating officer.

“I think it puts us all at risk by not following the simple guidelines that are in place,” Byers said. “When in doubt, you err on the side of health and safety.”

NFHS Guidelines

The NFHS guidelines for handling lightning or thunder disturbances outline:

When thunder is heard or a cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is seen, the leading edge of the thunderstorm is close enough to strike your location with lightning. Suspend play for 30 minutes and take shelter immediately.

Thirty-minute rule. Once play has been suspended, wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder is heard or flash of lightning is witnessed prior to resuming play.

Any subsequent thunder or lightning after the beginning of the 30-minute count will reset the clock and another 30-minute count should begin.

NCAA Guidelines

The NCAA outlines its lighting safety guidelines in the Sports Medicine Handbook. The guidelines, most recently revised in June 2014, call for institutions to develop a lightning safety plan for each outdoor venue, including venue-specific plans for suspension, evauation and resumption of play. It suggests monitoring weather reports before and during practices or events, planning ahead for the time it takes to evacuate facilities if lightning or severe weather threatens and designating a person to monitor threatening weather who has “recognized and unchallenged authority” to suspend activities.

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Remember, each subsequent rumble of thunder or flash of lightning resets the clock by another 30 minutes.

The guidelines also recommend use of lightning safety slogans — such as, “If you see it, flee it; if you can hear it, clear it” — to simplify and summarize essential information and knowledge. “This slogan reflects the fact that upon the first sound of thunder, lightning is likely within eight to 10 miles and capable of striking your location,” the guidelines state. Additionally, the guidelines note that thunder can be difficult to hear at a stadium with a large crowd.

“Lightning can strike from blue sky and in the absence of rain. At least 10 percent of lightning occurs when there is no rainfall and when blue sky is often visible somewhere in the sky, especially with summer thunderstorms,” the guidelines state.

Pointing to advice from weather experts, the guidelines call for waiting 30 minutes after both the last sound of thunder and last flash of lightning before resumption of play.

At night, when lightning can be spotted at a much greater distance, the guidelines offer some leeway when considering the resumption of play: “At night, use both the sound of thunder and seeing the lightning channel itself to decide on re-setting the 30 minute ‘return-to-play’ clock before resuming outdoor athletic activities.”

Gone are the days when NFHS or NCAA lightning protocols relied upon counting the time between the lightning flash and the thunder — the so-called flash-to-bang method — to assess a storm’s distance. For every five seconds, the lightning is roughly a mile way. There has been a realization that if thunder is heard, there is already a risk of the storm producing lightning at your location. 

“Years ago they went into great lengths about the flash-to-bang method and how you can determine how far away the lightning is,” Goldberger said, “and then finally they got a little smarter and stopped harping on that.”

While most lightning occurs within 10 miles of its parent thunderstorm, it can strike much farther — lightning detection equipment confirmed a bolt 50 miles away, according to the National Weather Service.

Who Makes the Call?

In most sports, the decision to continue, halt or resume play because of weather-related issues rests with the game officials. In some instances they have the benefit of an ad hoc support system.

Florida has more thunderstorms than any other state in the nation. Consequently, those who live there are aware of the dangers associated with lightning.

The Florida High School Athletic Association’s (FHSAA) protocol, known as Policy 32, mandates that play be suspended for lightning at the request of the game representative of either team or an official. The game representative is typically the host principal or athletic director or, in the case of the visiting team, the coach, or perhaps a principal or athletic director if they are on the trip.

“Any of the three has the authority or the power to actually stop a contest,” said Justin Harrison, the FHSAA’s associate executive director for athletic services. “And the official in any sport has to adhere to that. If the principal said, ‘I saw (lightning),’ and the other principal said, ‘I saw it too but it seems like it’s really far away and the first one said, ‘I think it was close enough. We need to get off the field,’ then that has to be followed.”

This procedure is in place for all interscholastic events other than the state tournament, where the responsibility for managing lightning-related issues is shared by the FHSAA administrative staff, the site host and the contest officials.

The FHSAA does not mandate a minimum wait time in the event of a weather delay, in part because many athletic facilities in the state are equipped with lightning detection equipment, and in part because of the increasing popularity of apps that allow monitoring of weather conditions via smartphone.

But the protocol in Florida is the exception rather than the rule. In most instances, officials working at the high school and youth levels are on their own when it comes to weather-related decisions. Game management or the home team may be the ultimate authority prior to game time, but once the contest begins, the responsibility is on the officials — along with the liability exposure. That’s a sobering reality when one considers that officials might have a finely tuned strike zone or be expert on applying the advantage clause, but we are not trained as meteorologists.

A Difficult Position

Jeremy Schlitz, athletic director at James Madison (Wis.) Memorial High School, said ambiguity comes from the idea of using cloud-to-ground lightning or hearing thunder as the threshold for calling play.

“There are times, depending on your venue, when you may be able to see a storm 30 or 40 miles away and that storm lighting the sky up,” Schlitz said. “With the technology we have and the apps that we have, people can see that the storm is 32 miles away and moving away from us, so why are we suspending play? But I think we err on the side of caution — that’s what we should be doing.”

Schlitz acknowledges that weather-related situations place officials in a difficult position.

“If an official deems it’s unsafe, we need to make sure we’re canceling that game immediately upon their direction,” he said, “and following whatever the return-to-play process would be. I think the official is put in a difficult situation when one coach feels as though it should, even if the official doesn’t. Because as soon as you’re made aware of that concern, the liability shifts at that point.”

For the past 37 years, John Gresiak has been a meteorologist for Accuweather, one of the country’s most respected weather services.

“In terms of safety concerns, it’s best not to be outside during a thunderstorm when the storm is in progress, or even when it’s nearby,” he said, “because there have been instances of lightning striking beyond the actual thunderstorm. It may not be raining and the actual thunderstorm cloud may not even be right over you at the time, but the lightning bolts can strike outside that main thunderstorm cloud and rain shield.”

Weather apps don’t replace other weather protocols, but can be useful tools for calling off play ahead of any visible lightning and thunder. Remember, it takes time to get players, coaches and officials off the field to a safe area.

Gresiak acknowledges there are instances when lightning can be seen when it’s a considerable distance from the observer’s location, particularly at night. Sometimes all that’s seen is a flash of light near the horizon with no accompanying thunder, a phenomenon often referred to as heat lightning. But it’s still lightning from a thunderstorm in the distance, and the consequences of making the wrong call on lightning are so severe that officials need to be cautious.

Unfortunately, some officials seemingly turn a blind eye to potential weather problems. There may be dark clouds in the distance or even visible lightning, but some are loathe to stop play until the storm actually hits and the situation has become potentially dangerous.

Some officials will try to justify their actions by saying, “There is no thunder; the lightning is too far away to be a problem,” or, “They haven’t stopped the game on the other field, so why should we stop?” Sometimes there is a pay issue involved; the officials need to be on the field a certain amount of time to collect a full game fee.

Goldberger said those arguments are without merit. “I’ve heard all that,” he said, “and the bottom line is, the consequences of being struck by lightning have been well documented.”

Officials may find themselves assigned to a tournament or showcase with multiple games scheduled on the same field, perhaps from early morning until dark. Any kind of weather delay impacts the schedule and could cause some games to be called off altogether.

According to the National Weather Service, a dugout is not a safe place during lightning. Instead, find a sturdy building that provides adequate protection or get inside a hardtop vehicle.

In those circumstances, officials may find themselves being pressured by coaches or tournament directors to keep things moving along, whether by shortening a mandatory waiting period (depending on the rules in effect) or starting or continuing play when severe weather appears imminent.

Goldberger emphasizes that the 30-minute rule requires a minimum wait of 30 minutes. “You (do not resume play) at 27 minutes,” he said. “You’re better off starting in at 33 minutes or later. It’s an area where you need to take your time if it happens.”

And beware of the tournament director who says, “I’ll take the responsibility” for starting or resuming play when the possibility of severe weather looms. The bottom line is that officials are considered in charge of the game on the field and will likely be held legally responsible if there is an accident.

Goldberger said officials must be firm with tournament administrators who are insistent about carrying on in bad weather. “The right answer (to a question) is, ‘You’re putting everybody at risk by even suggesting that,’” he said. “They need to understand that this a game, and a children’s game at that and we’re not going to expose anybody to the undue of risk of being struck by lightning because they think it’s OK to play.”

College-level Calls

At the college level, certified athletic trainers from the host institution are often charged with monitoring the weather, since lightning safety is considered a sports-medicine issue. Valerie Rice-Smith, head athletic trainer at Delaware Valley University, an NCAA Division III institution in Doylestown, Pa., outside Philadelphia has worked in sports medicine for some two decades.

Earlier in her career, Rice-Smith relied on a hand-held lightning detector to monitor Mother Nature. But she now utilizes an app known as WeatherBug that includes a lightning-detection function called Spark, which displays lightning strikes within a predetermined radius of the user’s location.

“It’s nice, because we can show the coaches where it is,” she said, “and they can say, ‘OK, you’re right, we need to get out.’”

Resist pressure from a coach, athletic director, or tournament director who is anxious to start or resume play before required waiting periods. The decision to play or not is yours and your crew’s — and so is the liability exposure that goes with it.

But Rice-Smith has found herself in situations in which officials have ignored an approaching storm. She understands that officials on the field may not see a lightning flash and that their job is observing the game, not the sky above them. But she has been in situations when officials are told there is a storm nearby but seemingly ignore the warning. “The worst is when a referee doesn’t listen to us,” she said, “when we say, ‘We just wanted to let you know there’s lightning right over our head.’”

Rice-Smith recalls staffing a college baseball game in North Carolina early in her career when the players and coaches literally had to run for cover because the umpires ignored warnings about an approaching storm.

“We had to get off the field,” she said. “We sprinted out of the dugout (because) the umpires waited too long. We told them there was a storm coming and they just ignored us.”

Rice-Smith points out that in the event of a storm, players and coaches need to be able to get to a safe area quickly; a dugout, for instance, is not a safe area.

She is disturbed when coaches, officials and administrators are dismissive of weather-safety protocols. “People don’t take lightning as seriously as they used to, as say, when I was growing up,” she said.

Some will point to the fact that it’s not uncommon for MLB games to continue when lightning is visible. But MLB umpires are employees carrying out the will of their employers, and some clubs have access to meteorologists to assist with weather-related decisions. Most of the rest of us are independent contractors and, more often than not, the players on the field with us are minors. The officials’ first concern must be the safety of the participants.

And while lightning detectors or apps may provide officials with information that helps them decide if and when to suspend play or return to play, they do have limitations.

“They show what has happened,” Gresiak said, “and certainly you can see a trend perhaps of maybe where the bolts are tracking and things like that, but they can’t quite predict where a future bolt is going to hit, which may or not be along the path that previous bolts have taken.

“Certainly they may show you lightning bolts before you hear the thunder if they’re far enough away, and you can see that there is lightning coming in your general direction. They are useful in that respect but as far as determining where a future bolt might strike, I don’t think they can be depended on in that respect.”

Gresiak shares the view that some don’t realize just how dangerous lightning is. “I think that’s true with any particularly dangerous type of weather phenomenon,” he said. “If (people) haven’t experienced it, or it’s been a long time since they’ve experienced it, they don’t take it as seriously.”

Officials’ responsibilities are numerous and varied. But the first responsibility is to safeguard the welfare of the athletes involved in the game. That mandate must never be forgotten.

Bolt Banter

Have you ever been pressured to keep a game going despite lightning? If so, what were the circumstances and how did it go? Referee asked for responses on social media and here’s what you had to say:

David Pienta

I was umpiring a softball tournament. I could see lightning bolts and hear thunder within about 20 seconds. The tournament director (also an umpire) kept us out there. I went against that decision and pulled the teams in. I got to the umpire and scorer room and was chastised for making the decision on my own because the fancy lightning detector for the park had not gone off. Not even 30 seconds later, a bolt of lightning hit a tree just beyond center field. Then the lightning detector went off. People become so reliant on technology that they forget technology can fail. They also forget that once the detector goes off, the threat is there, all while you spend minutes clearing fields and getting people to shelter.

Steve Tonkinson

Working a football game here in the UK and I’m the white hat. We’re maybe 10 minutes into the 1st quarter and there is a flash and a rumble, plus torrential rain. Coaching staff from one of the teams pressured me to keep playing as they were up 7-0 and driving for another score. I ignored their pleas, cleared the field and got everyone under cover. Much additional rumbling and muttering from players was directed our way: “The refs were afraid of getting wet,” “We can play through this, it isn’t dangerous,” etc. After a few minutes under cover, a bolt hits the ground 100 yards away in the next field. It’s deafening and after the initial startled exclamations, there is complete silence. Then I hear a solitary quiet voice, “Mmmm, good call ref.”

Tom Kimmel

Many years ago, I was working a softball tournament on one of those

“wagon wheel” complexes. The UIC gave us our pre-tournament instructions that he, and only he, could stop a game for weather, since there were 5 fields playing at the same time and he did not want some stopping and some continuing play. During my game, we kept playing even through sounds of thunder. However, at some point, a bolt of lightning hit about a mile or so behind the outfield fence on my field and I stopped the game and pulled everyone off the field. When I got to the umpire room, the UIC was livid. He was watching a field on the other side of the complex and had not seen the bolt. Incredibly, he really wanted my partner and I to go back and restart the game! No way! About that time, two other crews stopped their games and it became clear that we had a dangerous weather situation.

Will Martin

No, and I never will be pressured. I will not be held personally responsible for a player, coach, fan, or otherwise being struck by a bolt of lightning. Serious safety issue and serious lawsuit on my hands if I keep it going and someone gets hurt.

Bill Hopton

Stopped a high school baseball game in the bottom of the seventh inning. Visitors had been losing, 3-1, going into the seventh, scored 4 runs in the top of the seventh for the lead. The game never resumed, score reverted to 3-1, visitors lost, and their 48-game win streak was ended. I was roundly criticized by the losing coach and newspaper reporter from that area. Funny thing was that visitor’s JV coach took his team off of an adjacent field saying conditions were too dangerous.

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