Notre Dame uses DTN to help forecast weather for Notre Dame Stadium, where storms affected football games and a Garth Brooks concert last year. (Courtesy DTN)

Private services help venue managers decide when to take action

When thunderstorms roll toward an outdoor venue — whether a stadium hosting a football game or concert or a fairground hosting a festival — event organizers know about the inclement weather threat hours in advance. That threat often triggers an emergency preparedness plan that has the venue facing the decision of whether to evacuate or postpone.

“Working with a venue on a particular day, we will be talking with them about their site-specific forecast so they will know if we believe there is a threat,” said Jon Porter, vice president of business services and general manager of enterprise solutions at Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “We will talk with them during the day to see how it evolves and as the day goes, we are able to home in on when we think the most impact will be.”

Lightning provides the most frequent weather threat for outdoor events, but high winds, tornadoes, snow and ice, intense heat and heavy rains can all create dangerous situations for event organizers. “We are finding that weather risks are what keeps event organizers up at night,” Porter said.

Having a site-specific look at the weather represents a growing enterprise in venue management. Others operating in that space include Minnesota-based DTN and WeatherWorks, based in New Jersey.

DTN had a meteorologist on site at the more than 150 events it handled in 2018. “We are working with the customers on how the weather impacts them and then providing them with the correct information so they are able to make the most logical decisions, those important decisions based on how the weather is going to affect them,” said Brad Nelson, safety markets team lead meteorologist for DTN. “For our on-site meteorologist, it is important to understand the customer in not only what the weather is going to do, but how the weather is going to affect them. We are able to help them make determinations.”

DTN sets up shop at all PGA Tour golf events, the Masters and all events at Notre Dame Stadium, including football, a recent Garth Brooks concert that saw heavy winds and the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic game and its sub-freezing temperatures on New Year’s Day, plus everything from the Indiana State Fair to IMG golf tournaments in Asia.

Nelson said being face-to-face with the venue decision-makers gives organizers valuable peace of mind. Plus, being on site allows the meteorologist to set up special equipment, such as a lightning detection system that can monitor the electrical field right on the site to gauge the exact threat of lightning.

The site-specific forecast serves as the starting point, but actionable data is where the venues can enjoy an extra layer of value, providers say. “We are not just looking at a radar image you might see on television, but very detailed radar imagery that is like taking an MRI of a storm,” Porter said. “We are looking for signatures that give us insight for what is about to happen.” Having a high level of detail on the storm also allows a meteorologist to give venue operators the OK to safely resume an event after a threat.  

“It helps people feel safer and gives them more information, showing them the venue is taking the safety concerns very seriously,” Porter said.

With that data in hand, meteorologists remain in communication with event organizers so that they can activate an emergency plan based on specific weather events. Consultations between the weather service and the venue create different strategies depending on potential weather risks specific to the location. “A lot of places have an emergency action plan,” Porter said. “Our warning is the activation into the safety plan. When they get a warning from us, they know to take action.”

This past Notre Dame football season, weather data from DTN led Notre Dame to hurry a traditional “player walk” event in order to get fans onto the concourse, but then delayed opening gates to the seating bowl until a lightning threat passed.

Lightning is the primary threat that the weather services help events deal with, but plenty of other inclement weather can come into play. Indoor venues may use a service to know when the threat of passing storms may require keeping people inside, and heat warnings can lead to venues delaying start times of an event until cooler hours.

Concerts, while still concerned about lightning, have an increased need to watch for high winds. For the Garth Brooks concert in October at Notre Dame Stadium, winds between 40 and 50 mph the day before the concert required the evacuation of workers in the lower bowl and the need to lower speakers and remove panels. “There are those decisions leading up to an event,” Nelson said. “There is a lot of work the days leading up to a show, but there is also the question of what kind of weather are we going to receive during the show and do we need to delay the start or play it by ear?”

The weather data helps other aspects of a venue, Nelson said, such as knowing what kind of concessions an event needs to stock up on. The colder the weather, the more hot beverages and food that may be consumed. On the flip side, a warm day may require extra cold items for fans.

DTN, which also specializes in golf, knows that a course hosting a large event may need up to an hour to evacuate because of lightning, so timing becomes critical for safety. From an everyday standpoint, wind directions and speeds can help rules officials determine where to place pins. “Let’s say you have strong winds on a Friday when players are trying to make the cut and gunning for the pins. Course officials may make it a bit easier to reward them for risky shots,” Nelson said. “But if you have very light winds, they will make pin placements a lot harder and tuck them into corners or place them closer to hazards.”