Archive for Monday, May 12, 2003

Schools use devices to help detect where lightning strikes

May 12, 2003


Lightning flashed between three and eight miles south of Lawrence. And that meant everything had to stop.

As everyone ran to their cars, Brian was down on all fours, wrist-deep in the dark gray soup.

Standing up, he pulled up his soaked pants with one gray hand, staggered ankle deep through the muck and retrieved his gray shirt, trying to make sure his pants didn't fall too far down again.

He joined other members of my daughter's mud volleyball team hurrying away from the mud courts.

"We're supposed to go to our cars and wait for 20 minutes," Bonnie, whose face was still surprisingly clean, told me.

Looking for lightning

One of the biggest threats of spring sports, including the annual Lawrence High School Mud Volleyball Tournament at Broken Arrow Park, is lightning.

But now they have a new little tool for storm tracking -- a lightning detector.

"We use it as an aid to help coaches and administrators when we're at outdoor events," said Ron Commons, athletic director at LHS.

A couple of years ago, the school district bought seven of them for LHS, seven for Free State High School and others for the junior highs.

Coaches take them along to practice and to games as a way to protect students from lightning.

Scanning the skies

The detectors the school district uses are the SkyScan, (

A hand-held monitoring product, the SkyScan detects lightning and thunderstorm activity within 40 miles.

With each lightning strike, the device emits an audible sound and tells you how far away the lightning is. LED lights flash to indicate distances of 0-3 miles, 3-8 miles, 8-20 miles or 20-40 miles away.

Commons said school district policy is to stop the event when the SkyScan indicates lightning is three to eight miles away. Coaches then wait 20 minutes before deciding whether to continue. It cost $189.95.

Smaller devices available

Outdoor Technologies Inc. makes StrikeAlert (, which is a lightning detector costing $79.99.

StrikeAlert works similarly to the SkyScan, but gives different ranges.

Red LED lights tell you if the strike was between 0 to 6 miles away or from 6 to 12 miles.

And yellow LED lights warn you if it was from 12 to 24 miles away or from 24 to 40 miles away.

The colored lights stay lit for two minutes. If a more recent strike is farther away, the LED indicating this distance will light for two seconds, and then return to complete the two minutes from the nearest strike.

The company points out that you should use it only outside, because it reacts to electromagnetic devices, such as TVs, computers, motors and high-powered electronic equipment.

Commons agreed the lightning detector isn't absolutely accurate. For example, when you're out golfing and press down on the accelerator to the electric cart, the electromagnetic signals set off the detector. It also can be set off when somebody gets a call on a cell phone.

But coaches rely on them at home and at away games, Commons said.

"We'd rather be safe than sorry," he said.

Clearing skies

"Sorry. It won't stick."

The duct tape wasn't quite working -- Jacob couldn't get the tape to stick to the slick mud on his teammate's pants.

But they came up with a better way to hold up Brian's sagging shorts: run the tape through his belt loops, like a belt.

Suddenly, the sun broke through the clouds.

Everybody cheered as Jo Huntsinger told them to start playing again before the next storm came through.

And thanks to the duct tape and the sun, there would be no more sudden flashes for awhile.

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