NORTH LIBERTY — The North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball (NYLBS) league has taken a number of steps in recent years to increase the safety of all who attend the games. This season, the league has a new tool designed to prevent tragedy: a lightning detector designed to warn of an approaching storm.
According to North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) Chief Eric Vandewater, the detector is able to detect lightning up to 80 miles away, but is set to a 20-mile radius. When lightning is detected, the device sounds an alarm. Games are then delayed for 20 minutes. According to the NLYBS disaster plan, if lightning is seen within the first 10 minutes, or the detector sounds again, the game is called. Vandewater said the detector gives the distance of the lightning and is able to give the estimated time of arrival (ETA) for the storm cell. It also gives an estimated time until the storm clears the area and will sound an “all-clear” after the risk of lightning has completely passed.
While thunderstorms are a common occurrence, with obvious hazards such as tornadoes, hail, high winds, and flooding, lightning is often overlooked as a life-threat. Statistics vary, but on average, between 70 and 100 people are killed each year by lightning with roughly 300 injured. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lightning often kills more than hurricanes and tornadoes in a typical year. Most deaths are due to sudden cardiac arrest. For survivors of a lightning strike, a multitude of life-long ailments and disability are the norm, including: memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in the joints, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, irritability, and an inability to sit for long periods.
NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS) are especially concerned by what they call a “bolt from the blue,” or a lightning strike out of a clear blue sky. NOAA reports a bicycle rider was hit in the head by lightning under fair weather conditions and a clear sky. Investigation determined the storm itself was a little over seven miles away. Bolts from the blue have also been determined to have traveled more than 25 miles from the parent cloud to the ground.
Chief Vandewater said the detector is the latest in a series of safety improvements made by NLYBS. The Chief said it all started when firefighters in the bleachers spotted funnel clouds during a game a few years ago.
“At that time, the league had no plan, nothing. Everybody just scrambled,” Vandewater said. After funnels were spotted again, it was clear something had to be done in the name of safety. The league wrote a comprehensive disaster plan, including instructions for lightning, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and fire.
“I’m impressed with the plan they’ve come up with,” Vandewater said. “They’re hard to write, hard to implement, and hard to get ‘buy-in’ from everybody affected,” he added. Vandewater noted the disaster plan is still a work in-progress, but praised the league for being very cooperative.
The Johnson County Emergency Management Agency donated a weather radio to the league to give everybody a “heads-up” on severe weather warnings.
The Fire Department purchased the detector, a Thunder Bolt Storm Detector manufactured by Spectrum Electronics, for roughly $400 and loaned it to the league. The detector was paid for out of donations made to the department’s Benevolent Fund.
“It was a good way for us to give back to the community,” Vandewater said. “We saw an opportunity to help the baseball and softball teams.” The Chief also pointed out the department places as much emphasis on prevention and education as it does fire suppression and Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
“We’d rather try to prevent a tragedy than have to respond,” Vandewater added.