August 10, 2020 • Athletic AdministrationFacilitiesTechnology

Eye of the Storm: Using Integrated Technology to Track Severe Weather

On average, the state of Oklahoma gets hit by 52 tornadoes per year. With the constant concern of severe weather, athletic administrators from Hennessey High School in Hennessey, Oklahoma must be prepared for the event of a tornado and how to protect its students and fellow community members. 

That’s where the Eagle Event Center — Hennessey’s brand-new $9 million athletic facility, a certified FEMA P-361 storm shelter — comes into play. 

“This is primarily and foremost a storm shelter,” Dr. Michael Woods, Hennessey’s superintendent said. “It gives us a place to bring students during school or activities in the event of a severe weather situation and have more than adequate space for everyone on campus.”

severe weather
Photo: Artur Luiz dos Santos / Creative Commons

As Woods described, the building has been wired with a severe weather early warning system where a signal is sent out if a tornado warning is issued in our or neighboring counties. That warning triggers a modem in the facility and unlocks a series of doors and turns on lights, so anyone can access the shelter from outside without the use of any additional manpower. 

“As far as the determination of when to go in the storm shelter, you’re already too late if you just wait for the warning,” Woods said. “We start looking at weather systems three or four days out, and we keep track and identify when things could get dicey and prepare for that situation. We’ll make out staff and students aware two or three days ahead of time if we have to alter any schedules.”

Planning for severe weather — no matter if it’s tornadoes in the midwest, tropical storms along the Gulf coast and Atlantic or anywhere that lightning strikes — is among the highest of priorities for athletic administrators across the country. And in the battle of keeping communities abreast of breaking weather, there are two clear-cut leaders: DTN and Earth Networks. 

DTN, with its WeatherSentry software and newly released OnGuard Siren alerting system, provides a robust option in the real-time tracking of severe weather conditions. For Gene Patterson, assistant athletic director and CAT at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia, choosing to go with DTN felt like the right decision. 

“When it comes to athletics and athletic events, you’re concerned about every person apart of the event — coaches, athletes, officials, and spectators,” said Patterson, who’s school has the WeatherSentry software already in place but in the process of installing the OnGuard Siren. “And when someone is visiting the campus for the first time and unfamiliar with the area, they hear the horn go off and a PA announcement and it validates the reason.” 

Able to be heard one to two miles in range, depending on the setting, the OnGuard Siren from DTN can detect weather formations from as far out as 60 miles with various advisory alerts on storms that are 20 to 25 miles out to cautionary warnings at 15 miles and incoming warnings at eight miles. 

“[These products] help us easily predict what’s going to happen by watching the weather and seeing a front coming in,” Patterson said. “But then there’s also those August, 92-degree days with high humidity that stirs up a thunderstorm that just appears and we have to be prepared for both.” 

With Woodward Academy being a K-12 school of roughly 2,505 students — about 1,000 of whom are high school students — the use of DTN’s products have brought additional support to the school aside from athletic events. Patterson said the school is built like a college campus, with different classes located in separate buildings on the property. Add in recess time for the younger students and outdoor physical education classes, and the presence of and peace of mind of DTN carries a greater significance for schools. 

“We learned real quick we could use it for more than just athletics,” he said. “And as the technology advanced over the years, a lot of the pro associations, like the NSCA, indicated the best practice was to have a real-time weather tracking system as opposed to an early detection predictive system.”

Aside from Woodward Academy, DTN has helped with the PGA Tour and various Olympic games sites and Notre Dame football among others. 

Earth Networks offers a similar line of products, with its comprehensive Sferic Protect real-time storm tracking software that is also customizable and accessible through PC, phones, and tablets. Additionally, Earth Networks offers an outdoor mass notification system that allows athletic administrators to spend less time worrying about the weather and more time focusing on other logistics around game time. 

“The horn alerting takes the onus off staff to inform visitors to seek shelter. During a game, everyone is looking down and not up at the skies at the weather. Parents are watching their kids, referees are watching the game, and players are keeping their eye on the ball — and no one wants the game to be interrupted,” Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccerplex, said in an Earth Networks testimonial. “But people respect the horn and the technology.” 

With the Maryland Soccerplex, a 160-acre complex equipped with 22 outdoor soccer fields in Boyds, Maryland, the facility was simply too big to scale and notify officials, players, parents, and others of an incoming severe weather band. The installation of Earth Networks’ products eased the process and allowed the soccerplex’s administrators the opportunity to focus on other things — like its 64,000 square-foot indoor sports center and another outdoor championship stadium that can hold more than 3,000 fans. 

It came in handy when Hurricane Irene hit the mid-Atlantic coast in 2011, according to an Earth Networks’ case study. With the hurricane approaching while the fields were in use, the outdoor mass notification system alerted visitors to the impending storm. And as the storm progressed, the staff of the Maryland Soccerplex was able to monitor approaching lightning and storm bands. And the automatic alerts to mobile devices helped clear the area, cancel the games and, most importantly, keep everyone involved safe. 

“I think the Outdoor Alerting System is something necessary for every school,” Joseph Sanelli formerly of Coral Springs Christian Academy, said in an Earth Networks testimonial. “There’s not much that parents value more than the safety of their children and a tremendous part of what we try to provide each and every day is the safety and security of our students.”