Stadium Evacuations Spotlight the Importance of Risk Management

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Bucking their reputation for undying loyalty to Fighting Irish football, Notre Dame’s students left the stadium early on Saturday, September 3rd.  It had nothing to do, however, with the home team’s horrible performance in falling to the University of South Florida.  Severe thunderstorms raging through South Bend, Indiana were the causes behind two separate evacuations, the first such instances in the history of Notre Dame Stadium.  Football crowds at Michigan, Iowa, Tennessee, and West Virginia also saw the ugly side of Mother Nature in their teams’ first home games, resulting in an unprecedented total of five evacuated stadiums in a single college football weekend.

The odds of becoming victim to a lightning strike are slim.  The National Weather Service estimates that one out of every 10,000 Americans will be struck by lightning at some time in their lives.  But university officials are not prone to gambling, particularly when the safety of spectators is on the line.  If lightning were to strike a fan, the consequences could be disastrous.  All those struck by lightning are injured in some degree, with 10% of those injuries being fatal, according to the NWS.  If at fault, a university would likely be subject to an expensive lawsuit and, in addition, a mountain of negative press clippings.

With stadium personnel aware of those risks, Notre Dame’s ushers had to forcibly convince some Golden Domers to leave their seats, literally having to chase them to an exit.  That such actions were necessary underscores how important risk management is to the managers of athletic events.  Though it had never been used before, the plan for how to coordinate an evacuation of Notre Dame Stadium has been in place for decades.  A message from the public address announcer asking for “Usher 800 to report to the command center” alerts stadium personnel to start the evacuation.  A newly-installed sound system in the stadium’s concourse brought updates to fans while they waited for the storms to pass.  With such smooth methods in place, Notre Dame was able to conduct the two evacuations without a hitch.

The University of Michigan had the unenviable task of emptying “The Big House,” a stadium that seats 113,000 – the largest crowd capacity in college football.  In the opinion of certain fans, the evacuation process was anything but smooth.  Though some ushers were hurriedly herding spectators out of the stadium, others were telling fans it was okay to stay.  Keeping sports crowds controlled through clear instructions is a top priority in emergency situations.  Without uniform directions and information, fans will make their own decisions and could blame the university if something goes wrong.  To Michigan’s credit, Doppler radar updates were displayed on the stadium’s video scoreboard for all to see.  With more storm cells closing in, the university’s decision to end the game prematurely was prudent.

It should be noted that the NCAA football rule book covers this situation on page FR-153 (can be found at the NCAA’s public website at http://ncaa.org).  The rules state that the home team designates a particular person as the “lightning spotter”.  When less than 30 seconds is observed between a flash of lightning and the audible sound of thunder play on the field should be stopped and evacuation procedures initiated.  A “lightning clock” is then started.  At least 30 minutes has to pass without further lightning alerts before steps can be taken to resume play.  Each time there is a new strike the clock must be re-started.

Whether the games were finished or not, the bottom line is that evacuation was the right call in these situations.  Some fans may view stadium evacuations as an extreme measure.  But for those that will be held responsible in a catastrophe, extreme precautions outweigh the cost of implementation.  Beginning this year, Notre Dame will even keep a meteorologist on hand at all home games specifically to monitor weather developments.  Paranoia, you say?  Recall that this is the same university whose lack of foresight led to the death of football student manager Declan Sullivan last spring, when extremely high winds toppled a video tower Sullivan was in while filming practice.  That tragedy was not only a black eye for Notre Dame, but also a wake-up call to all universities about the importance of preventing the worst possible outcome, no matter how inconvenient the protocol.

In addition to being a licensed attorney, Patrick Brennan is a Teaching Assistant and doctoral student at the United States Sports Academy.  Risk management is one of the many sports issues students study at Academy. Courses are also offered on facilities management.  For more information on Academy programs, please visit www.ussa.edu.