At Mariner High School, not far from the spot where lightning struck and killed linebacker Tony McKenna in the fall of 1989, a siren sounded.
The skies were clear, and new coach James Hale looked up and wondered why the new WeatherBug lightning detector’s light began pulsating red during a practice two weeks ago.
“It went off, and we were like, ‘What is going on?” said Hale, who regardless of the clear skies brought his players inside.
Hale followed the new Lee County School District guidelines, which forbid outside school activities until 30 minutes after the last detected lightning strike within a 10-mile radius.
“About 20 to 25 minutes later, sure enough, the rain was coming down pretty bad,” Hale said.
As high school football season begins across Southwest Florida, it does so in a new era for Lee County with regard to lightning detection.
In previous seasons, Lee coaches have relied on handheld lightning detectors with a six-mile range while monitoring skies with phone applications and watching the Doppler radar.
This season, the new systems are more sensitive. Combined with the increase in afternoon thunderstorms, Lee coaches have been making contingency plans. Fort Myers High’s football team practiced from 5:30-6:30 a.m. Monday in order to beat the afternoon rains. South Fort Myers has been running through plays in a hallway. Other teams have made use of gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias for practicing. There have been 22 practice days since football season began, and weather has been a factor for just about every one of them, for every area team.
Last October, 11-year-old Southwest Florida Christian Academy football player Jesse Watlington died from a lightning strike. In November, his family filed a lawsuit against McGregor Baptist Church, which owns the private school, for negligence.
In November, the Lee County School District finished reviewing two warning systems.
In December and January, the district purchased and installed the WeatherBug brand system at a startup cost of $182,500 for the 13 public high schools with a budgeted $13,000 for annual service maintenance.
The Collier County School District had installed Thor Guard, a competing brand, in the 2007-08 school year at a startup cost of $330,000 at 33 schools, with 25 other schools operating off a remote unit linked to the primary systems. The Collier School District pays about $9,800 per year for technicians to test every system twice a year.
Southwest Florida Christian Academy bought the Thor Guard system after Watlington’s death.
Just as Collier County football coaches went through an adjustment period to having a the detection system, Lee coaches are going through it now, especially after three weeks of consistent afternoon thunderstorms.
“We practiced a total of 30 minutes outside, all of last week,” Ida Baker coach Brian Conn said. “One day we waited an hour and a half and got the all clear. We went back outside, and the alarm went off 10 minutes later.”
Hale said he’s sure his team could have more time practicing outside if not for the sensitive detection systems, but at the end of the day, he said he felt secure in having them.
“If something happened to one of my kids,” Hale said, “I could never forgive myself.”
Fort Myers coach Sam Sirianni Jr. said he welcomed the use of the new detection system as it took the responsibility off his hands. One byproduct of the system, he said, is a significant decrease in practice time that might become evident on game nights.
“The thing about it is you have to be creative and proactive,” Sirianni Jr. said. “You have to do the best you can with the time you’re given. I’ve never seen it rain so early and in the day for so long. With the new lightning detections, it’s detecting these storms earlier. It’s definitely something we’re all dealing with. My biggest concern with the lack of practice time is the kids’ conditioning and the basic fundamentals. We’re losing some of that.”
Not taking chances
People have a one in 3,000 chance of being struck by lightning in their lifetime and one in 700,000 of being struck in the United States in any given year, according to the National Geographic Society.
Ida Baker junior quarterback Sage Attwood said for as much as he dreaded going inside for practice, he would rather not take such a chance.
“No one likes the new thing that we’ve got,” Attwood said. “The storms seem really far away, and we have to go in. But all of the players aren’t thinking about being struck by lightning. We just want to be out there playing. But the coaches, they know. They always take us inside.
“If there’s a one in 10,000 chance to get struck, you don’t want to be that one.”
Collier County Athletic Director Joe Kemper said he began receiving more positive feedback from Collier coaches about the Thor Guard system after the first few years.
“Obviously, the coaches have some frustrations sometimes, but at this point, after having it for five or six years, everyone believes in its accuracy because by now, everyone has had experiences with it,” Kemper said. “Initially, people weren’t convinced. But after awhile, pretty much everybody has had an experience where the system went into alarm at what seemed like a random moment, and then sure enough, lightning occurred thereafter.
“Our compliance has gotten to be 100 percent at this point. That thing goes off, and we clear the field, no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Lee football coaches may be having even smaller windows to practice outside than their Collier counterparts because of the differences between the WeatherBug and Thor Guard systems.
While WeatherBug detects in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning up to 10 miles away, Thor Guard does not detect lightning. Instead, it detects atmospheric conditions conducive to creating lightning.
“He was struck by a first strike,” Thor Guard president Bob Dugan said of Watlington. “That storm had not materialized yet. It was moving from the south-southeast. As the storm approached, it was building up energy.
“To the naked eye … there was nothing there. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, because he was killed.”
Frank McCathran, director of enterprise solutions for the Maryland-based WeatherBug, said his company studied the Fort Myers weather on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 2012, when Watlington was struck. The study determined the WeatherBug system would have provided a three-minute warning of imminent danger based on the occurrence of nearby cloud-to-cloud lightning.
“Once lightning is detected within a 10-mile radius, the outdoor horn will sound on the campus,” McCathran said. “Decision makers will also receive email alerts, text alerts. The district also has access to a visualization tool so they know which campuses are under alert, how far away the lightning is, what direction the lightning is going. They can see every lightning strike in Southwest Florida.”
Ron Davis, director of Lee County student services last year, reviewed both systems. He said the county chose WeatherBug over Thor Guard because WeatherBug also fits in with the district’s science curriculum and student projects.
Davis said he recognized the inconveniences these new procedures have caused.
“On the other hand, it also might prevent people from getting killed,” Davis said. “So we have to weigh those things. I think we have to figure out how to make it work.”