Colorado has the third-highest number of lightning deaths in the
nation, topped only by Florida and Texas, according to the National
Lightning Safety Institute.
With such statistics in mind, CSU installed four ThorGuard
Lightning Prediction Systems in June for a little less than $25,000
to help prevent a lightning-related death or injury on campus.
The systems provide advance warning of lightning strikes and are
located at the Intramural Fields, Challenge Course, Jack
Christiansen Memorial Track and Hughes Stadium.
“By design, we purchased it so we would be able to give faculty,
staff and students sufficient warning to clear any fields or open
areas so the threat of anyone actually getting hit by lightning
would lessen,” said Ken Quintana, a health and safety specialist
with Environmental Health Services.
Bob Dugan, president of ThorGuard, said the system is very
accurate and is used in most major golf tournaments. It was also
used at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
One of the prediction system’s major distinctions is that it
predicts the first lightning strike before it happens, whereas a
detection system can only react to lightning that has already
ThorGuard works by analyzing the electrostatic field within a
two-mile radius of the device. When a set amount of
lightning-producing electrostatic buildup is detected, a horn will
sound and a yellow strobe light will begin flashing, signaling that
people in the area should seek shelter because lightning is
The ThorGuard system also predicts “bolts out of the blue,” a
phenomenon where lightning can strike without warning up to 60
miles away from the actual storm in a place with a clear sky and no
evidence of foul weather.
“Bolts out of the blue” are often fatal and are responsible for
many of the lightning deaths in Colorado, according Dugan.
“Colorado is a very dangerous area for lightning and you get
more than your share,” Dugan said. “This year (Colorado has) had
three (instances) where strikes seemingly came out of clear blue
sky and hit and killed people.”
Quintana said the ThorGuard system was chosen in part because it
is entirely automated, eliminating human error.
“We wanted something where the computer makes the call for us
and that’s what this system does,” he said. “It takes all the
guesswork out of any one individual and puts it on the
Dugan said lightning prediction systems are becoming more widely
implemented at universities, parks and sports venues. He said using
the flash-to-bang method of counting the seconds between a
lightning flash and the thunder that follows, or simply watching
the sky, is not always enough to ensure safety.
“No matter how cautious you are, you can only see lightning and
hear thunder when it’s at a certain distance,” Dugan said. “Most
people, if they see a lightning strike over the mountains 12 miles
away, are not going to move. The problem is, just because that’s
where the last strike occurred doesn’t mean the next one’s going to
be back there.”
Quintana said when people hear the horn sound to warn of a
lightning strike, the best thing to do is seek shelter, preferably
in a building or car. However, because ThorGuard can generally
provide eight to 20 minutes advance warning of the first strike,
there is no need to make a run for it.
“It doesn’t mean people need to drop what they’re doing and run
for cover,” Quintana said. “It just means they have to start
picking things up and get inside for safety.”
Once the lightning threat is no longer significant, the strobe
light will stop flashing and three short blasts will sound on the
horn, signaling that it is safe to go back outside.
There have been no direct lightning strikes on campus since the
system was installed over the summer, but Kevin May, assistant
director for informal recreation at Campus Recreation, said the
system has been very useful.
“It’s definitely let us know when there’s a risk of lightning.
It’s been right on several times as well,” he said. “Once it goes
off we just kind of watch the weather and, sure enough, within a
short time we get all sorts of activity. It’s definitely gone off
at the appropriate times.”
Quintana said he thinks the cost of putting in the ThorGuard
system is well worth the lives it can potentially save.
“It’s one of those things in looking and dealing with safety
where we’d rather be proactive than wait for something to happen
and put it in after the fact,” Quintana said. “I think in the long
term we’re going to be a lot better with the system than opposed to