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Safety should always be first concern

In the past three weeks, lightning has forced several high school football games to be postponed or canceled.

So often, a tragedy causes changes in rules, policies or procedures as officials scramble to learn from the incident and avoid a repeat. But in this case, short of putting domes over high school football fields, there's no guarantee lightning couldn't strike twice.

Menacing storm clouds rolling over the Tampa Bay area are a familiar sight this time of year. Florida is the leader in lightning-related deaths and injuries, according to the National Weather Service, killing about 10 people a year and injuring another 40.

In addition, more than 13 percent of the nearly 374 fatal strikes that occurred in Florida between 1956 and 1996 happened here in the bay area.

"Any time you're dealing with summer weather, it's considered lightning season," said Richard Rude, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "I don't want to say all, but most fatalities and injuries occur when someone is outside for various reasons."

Lightning has been a hot topic on high school fields. In the past three weeks, several football games in the bay area have either been delayed, postponed or canceled. In addition, lightning canceled a game this season between Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

"You don't take chances with unpredictable weather," Pinellas County athletic director Bob Hosack said. "That's why so many of our games are canceled. When there is rain, things are halted."

Hosack said there is an unwritten policy in Pinellas County between administrators and officials to clear the playing field at the first sight of bad weather.

"Our administrators don't have to be told twice," Hosack said. "They definitely know, you see a storm approaching, you get out of there. Everyone is very cognizant around here."

Vernon Korhn, Hillsborough County's athletic director, gives the assistant principals in the county a pamphlet each year detailing the dangers of lightning.

"When you're talking about safety, everyone should be involved," Korhn said. "The pamphlet isn't necessarily a policy, just a reminder to be aware of lightning."

Much like Pinellas, calling games in Hillsborough is a group effort between officials and administrators. School officials and coaches have the final say when to get under cover during practices.

Rude said the best way to tell when to seek shelter is to listen to the thunder following the sight of lightning. If you hear thunder less than 30 seconds after you see lightning flash, get out. You are in a danger area.

"It's not out of the question that something like that could happen," said Rude, referring to two Gibbs players killed in 1970. "It might be hard to do, but the safest is to not be outside at a game or at practice when there's bad weather. Stay inside."

LIGHTNING SAFETY TIPS

+ Avoid open areas. Twenty-seven percent of people killed by lightning are struck at ball fields, parks and golf courses.

+ If a storm is approaching, seek shelter in a home or other building. Cars provide good protection.

+ If your hair stands on end or your skin tingles, lightning is about to strike you.

Immediately drop to the ground, leaning forward and crouching with your hands on your knees. Do not lie flat or put your hands on the ground.

+ Close windows and doors, and stay clear of televisions and other electrical appliances.

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