Eye of the Storm – a look at the Event Safety Alliance’s Severe Weather Summit

This article was first published in the spring issue of Protocol Magazine, and was written by the Event Safety Alliance’s Director of Operations, Jacob Worek.

‘The National Weather Service has issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the greater Oklahoma City area…’

These were the words that greeted attendees as they converged on Oklahoma to take part in the Event Safety Alliance’s second-annual Severe Weather Summit. Such forecasts aren’t particularly unusual for this region – after all, the chorus of the official state song mentions two separate weather phenomena in as many lines (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma’ for the theatrically-impaired). While the worst of the storms mercifully missed the region, the alert set a fitting tone for the important conversation to follow.

A universal threat

As past tragedies such as the Indiana State Fair stage roof collapse demonstrate, severe weather can have a catastrophic impact on live events. Unlike many other safety hazards, weather is unpreventable and universal. No matter what part of the planet you occupy, dangerous weather is possible – be it tornados, heat, or hurricanes. With no means of forestalment, one’s only course of action is to be prepared to respond when Mother Nature threatens.

Responding effectively to severe weather, however, requires an accurate understanding of the hazard and its behaviour. With a dearth of event-focused weather preparedness training available, the Event Safety Alliance launched the Severe Weather Summit in 2015. Held each March at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma, the Severe Weather Summit is a two-day exploration of meteorological phenomena and how event professionals can mitigate its impact. Led by experts from the National Weather Service, private forecasting firms, and the live event industry, the programme aims to improve attendee’s awareness of the threats they face and provide them with the tools necessary to effectively plan for severe weather emergencies.

“Sky’s red in morning…”

Despite its ubiquity, weather is largely misunderstood outside of the meteorological community. Its complex and unstable nature impels many to place unquestioning faith in the latest cell phone applications, folksy adages, and their local television newscaster. While not objectively dangerous, reliance on such resources without a deeper understanding of the information they provide can have disastrous consequences. Day one of the 2016 Severe Weather Summit was dedicated to building this foundational knowledge, exploring the fundamentals of weather phenomena and forecasting along with the resources available to event producers that can aid in their planning.

Dr. John Scala kicked off the event with an overview of the myths, misconceptions, and fundamentals of weather forecasting. Scala, a Certified Consulting Meteorologist and past President of the National Weather Association, walked attendees through many common aphorisms about weather, exposing some as partially factual ( ‘Skies red in morning, sailor take warning’ having a basis in the movement of weather systems), while others as deadly falsehoods (‘Lighting never strikes the same place twice’? Tell that to former park ranger Roy Sullivan; he was struck seven times over his lifetime). Drawing connections between this folk wisdom and today, Scala provided a fascinating overview of modern meteorological science and how forecasters can predict weather days or even weeks in advance with a reasonable amount of accuracy.

The pitfalls of ‘Appaturism’

With the proliferation of smartphone technology has come an influx of weather apps, each claiming to provide the user with detailed, up-to-the minute weather information. While having such intelligence in the palm of your hand can be interesting, it may also provide the user with a undue sense of security. Without the knowledge to correctly assess the provided data, you risk making decisions based on what LOOKS dangerous on radar, while ignoring less apparent (and potentially far greater) threats. In short, you’re guilty what Dr. Kevin Kloesel refers to as ‘Appaturism’.

In his presentation, Kloesel, University Meteorologist in the University of Oklahoma’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, argued that having access to weather information is not enough. Situational awareness, the ability to interpret data, and a plan to act on that information is critical to responding effectively to severe weather threats. To reinforce this message, he presented several case studies wherein a lack of one or more of these essential components put lives at risk. The most well-known of these was the Indiana State Fair stage roof collapse. According to the Investigator’s Report by Witt and Associates, authorities were monitoring weather conditions that evening via a smartphone application. However, they misinterpreted the provided data and the arrival time of hazardous conditions, thereby delaying evacuation of the facility. A lack of a decision-making chain of command and predetermined decision triggers further delayed the response, with disastrous consequences.

Kloesel’s intent wasn’t to deter people from utilising weather apps. However, he believes they should be viewed as a single component of a comprehensive weather action plan, and should not supersede what your eyes and instincts are telling you.

Sources of information

With the importance of a well-rounded weather action plan established, the discussion turned to where individuals can locate information to help guide development of their plan, as well as where to turn for accurate day-of-show weather information and alerts. National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Rick Smith provided an overview of several publicly available planning resources, as well as what services the National Weather Service can and cannot provide to individual organisations. Following Smith, Weather Decision Technologies’ President and Co-Founder Mike Eilts discussed the role of private sector weather enterprises, and how such firms can provide real-time weather guidance customised for your specific event. Both Smith and Eilts pointed out that their roles within the meteorological industry were complimentary rather than competitive, with the public and private sector regularly sharing insights, technology, and data in the pursuit of greater scientific understanding.

The hazards we face

During the second half of day one, meteorologists from the National Weather Service and private sector forecasting firms walked the class through a suite of weather phenomena, selected for their relevance to those planning live events. These ‘big four’ conditions included lightning (presented by Weather Decision Technologies’ Chris Kerr and J.R. Henley), wind (Dr. Patrick Marsh), rain / flooding (John Zietler), and heat / cold (Steve Piltz). These sessions explored the magnitude and predictability of each threat, as well as the forecast and warning lead times – crucial information when developing weather decision triggers.

Closing out day one was National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Andy Bailey, who provided an overview of how the proceeding information can be used to develop tools such as weather monitoring, communications plans, and decision making triggers. Bailey’s closing session served as a bridge between the fundamental learning and the practical application that would be discussed in day two.

Putting the pieces together

Day two of the Severe Weather Summit focused on decision-making and the practical application of concepts learned during the previous day’s sessions. Lambda Productions President Hadden Hippsley joined Event Safety Alliance Chairman Jim Digby for a primer on building severe weather action plans, sharing numerous insights he’s gleaned from his experience as Production Manager for Bonnaroo, Firefly, Electric Forest, and countless other music and arts festivals around the country. Hippsley spoke of the need to involve as many internal stakeholders as possible in the planning process, both as a means to build rapport and to identify weaknesses in your plans. He discussed the importance of employee training and rehearsal to ensure all stakeholders understand their role in any response and are confident in their ability to execute it. Hippsley also stressed that your plans should be as simple and flexible as possible. “Emergencies don’t follow a script,” he said. “Your plan should not force you to, either.”

Hippsley and Digby then led attendees through a guided workshop, which involved developing a trigger chart for a real or hypothetical event. A trigger chart (or weather decision matrix) is a simple, easily understood tool that provides a visual representation of expected actions based upon pre-established weather ‘triggers’, such as windspeed, hail, or lightning. Triggers are determined based on factors specific to your event, such as the environment, attendance and production elements. As the intensity of these triggers increases, so too does the degree of response. The final product is a one-page, colour-coded reference sheet that helps to guide the decision-making process when faced with severe weather. For more complex events, individual work areas may require their own unique matrix (i.e. one for production, one for concessions, and so on). All trigger charts should also contain the method by which stakeholders will be alerted of an impending threat.

Hippsley stressed that trigger charts should not be ‘one size fits all’ and may need to be updated as conditions warrant. For example, if you’re working on a temporary festival site, the safest sheltering option for attendees may be their personal vehicles. This would likely increase the facility’s evacuation time, thereby requiring a lower trigger threshold than would a facility with onsite shelters. Even minor differences in staging and equipment should be carefully examined and triggers adjusted accordingly.

A better prepared industry

Meteorology is a complex science that takes years, if not decades, to master. Despite two days of intensive learning, few would walk out of the Severe Weather Summit claiming to be a weather expert. However, according to Jim Digby, that isn’t the intent. “You don’t need to know it all. You just need to know where to start,” he said. “If you walk out of here today with a greater understanding of the threat, take steps to ensure your plans are effective, and are more situationally aware in the field, then you’re doing your part to protect the lives under your care. There is no higher priority.”

Event Safety Alliance