How to help prepare community events for severe weather

Fear of storms at a young age is what drew Ron Bianchi to the study of weather. Today, he helps others ease their fears about the threat of severe weather at community events and festivals.

Mr. Bianchi, meteorologist and Director of Strategic Development for Climate and Terrestrial Weather at Wood’s Met-Ocean Services, offered some helpful tips for community planners and emergency managers at an event earlier this year in Markham, Ontario.

The day-long conference, hosted by the City of Markham and Calian Emergency Management, touched on several important issues for community events, including planning for festivals, policing tactics, food safety, training exercises and large crowd planning.

Weather is the number one threat to safety at events and festivalsWeather is the number one threat to safety at events and festivals, says Mr. Bianchi. Unfortunately, community events and festivals are not well enough prepared for severe weather. While festival organizers are improving their preparedness, he notices a distinct difference in the U.S., where the National Weather Service is more active in supporting preparedness than agencies in Canada.

Mr. Bianchi offered several tips and suggestions at the May 24 forum in Markham. Some of those follow.

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Do a hazard assessment

Understand the hazards for your region – which in Canada are often lightning, severe temperatures and high winds.

Lightning is a particularly common threat in southern Ontario. During rain and thunder storms, festival-goers often seek shelter under trees, which is one of the most dangerous places to be because they are vulnerable to lightning strikes. When there’s lightning, he says, the safest place to be is in a fully enclosed building or in your car. The car creates a Faraday cage whereby the electrical charge travels along the car’s external metal surface to the ground – meaning you’re safe inside in a protective metal shell.

Too often, people do not drink enough water and festivals may not stock adequate amountsSun exposure and extreme heat is another significant risk at festivals. Too often, people do not drink enough water and festivals may not stock adequate amounts. Ensure there is plenty of water available. Some festivals offer “cooling tents” that mist cold water onto the people inside.

The same goes for extreme cold. Have warming stations or areas where people can take a break from the cold, and serve warm drinks to help warm the body’s core. Efforts such as these help people reduce the hypothermic effects of extreme cold.

Strong, straight-line winds related to thunderstorms are another common threat, which can carry flying debris. Children’s bouncy castles can be dangerous in high winds when they are not properly anchored. Mr. Bianchi says wind gusts of 80 kilometres per hour can lift these inflatable structures high into the air, with children inside. A solid weather preparedness plan would inform organizers when it’s time to pull the plug on the castle, deflating it.

Test and retest

Test your plan and then test it again, says Mr. Bianchi, who was meteorologist for the 2015 Pan American Games. Repetitive testing and table-top exercises ensure people know their responsibilities and actions: “At Pan Am, we tested the same scenario many times – until you can do it in your sleep.”

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Create a plan, with thresholds

Every venue – big or small – has to have a plan, period,” Mr. Bianchi says. The plan should include a hazard assessment and a thorough a review of structures and systems -- such as tents, lighting and power – to ensure they are safe and that organizers understand their limits in severe weather.

Establish clear thresholds for actions. Everyone involved must know and understand the thresholds in advance of the event – and that they are not negotiable when the weather starts to get rough. “You have to have clear expectations about when you’re going to pull the pin, and what you’re going to do. That’s critical,” Bianchi says.

Weather watchers

Consider using weather watchers at the event. Mr. Bianchi recommends Environment Canada’s CANWARN program for free training that teaches people the various signs of severe weather – and where to look for signs of it in terms of visual cues.

Ensure your weather watchers start monitoring the weather days before the event begins. Get into the rhythm of holding morning weather briefings.

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Have backups

Be sure to have backups on your communications equipment, batteries and weather monitoring tools. Too often, Mr. Bianchi has seen these critical tools fail without backups.

My motto in life is have a backup on a backup on a backup,” he says. “Always develop several ways of getting information out and getting information in. Have those backups, because you never know when one of them fails, or they both fail.

Technology

If lightning is a common threat in the area, consider purchasing a lightning detector. They cost about $600 and can provide vital information such as the window of time before a storm arrives and how long before it clears.

For smartphone radar apps, Mr. Bianchi recommends RadarScope (radarscope.io; he says it’s well worth the $14).

Be very careful about the myriad of weather websites out there because many of them are unreliable, sometimes presenting the wrong data.

Local EMO

For large events, appoint someone on your team work with the local emergency management office. The officials will offer professional advice and tips. “You have to nowadays, with weather events being so intense,” Mr. Bianchi says. “[Weather] events are changing. We have to address that.

Clear signage

Provide clear, visible signs about what spaces are available in the event of an emergency or severe weather, and what attendees should do.

Additionally, Mr. Bianchi suggests setting up a large screen where festival-goers can see the radar and weather updates. It raises the situational awareness of the crowd. They’ll see a storm as it approaches and expect further guidance from organizers on what to do.

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