Sep 132004
 
Authors: Lindsay Robinson

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

occurred.

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

imminent.

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

computer.”

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

without it.”

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