The Severe Weather Preparedness program takes place February 26 in Dallas, Texas. It’s an advanced, one-day training program where participants learn information about all aspects of severe and threatening weather.
On the schedule is an industry roundtable featuring representatives from professional sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League (NFL), and racetracks. Moderating the roundtable is Billy Langenstein, director of event services for U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Representing the NFL is Andy Major, vice president of operations and guest experience for the Buffalo Bills in New York, and representing racetracks is Ed Klima, CEM, senior director of public safety and track operations for Dover International Speedway Inc. in Delaware. Langenstein recently asked Major and Klima some questions about his experiences in handling and being prepared for severe weather in a venue.
BL: What is one severe weather anomaly event that you experienced, and how did you handle it successfully?
AM: Although I have had some experience planning for hurricanes and tropical storms during my time in South Florida, the SNOWVEMBER STORM in Buffalo, New York, is the one that comes to mind right away.
In November 2014, we had seven feet of snow fall on Ralph Wilson Stadium during the span of about 48 hours on a home football game week…this gargantuan snowstorm is commonly referred to as the Snowvember Storm in Buffalo. Most of the surrounding towns issued driving bans, and the county was in a state of emergency. Some people lost their lives while others were trapped in their vehicles or had to abandon their vehicles. Roofs caved in, people were stuck in their homes, and streets had so much snow they couldn’t be plowed. Our stadium and the grounds were buried in snow, and we had several staff members who were stranded at the offices.
Our organization hosts two table-top exercises prior to each football season where we review communication plans and our emergency procedures, including severe weather issues. These exercises include local, county, state, and national security agencies and all game-day partners, including Bills staff. We also meet separately with our game-day partners, county officials, and law enforcement agencies before and after each game to review the upcoming game/event and discuss game-day items of concern. In addition, we meet with many of our game day partners regularly in and out of the office, both professionally and sometimes socially. Buffalo is a very close, and tight-knit community and our off-the-field direction regarding fan safety and fan behavior has made tremendous strides over the past four seasons due to everyone’s valued support and buy-in to our mission.
The pre-planning table-top exercises, regular meetings, and the relationships that we have developed with our game-day partners absolutely helped us get through the storm successfully. We were all in this together. Because of our prior emergency exercises, there was tremendous, proactive communication. Due to our professional and personal relationships, we were able to obtain and share information with our team from local, county, state, and national agencies in a very timely manner—all who teamed to save lives and help the community in any way possible. This communication flow (which took place from my kitchen table at my home—that acted as my emergency command center—since I was snowed in like many residents) was incredibly helpful to our president and ownership team who were in Florida for business meetings during the storm week. Overall, this helped us begin a very efficient but difficult snow removal process. More importantly, our team made the right decision to cancel our home game that weekend so that everyone who worked at our game, along with the fans, could concentrate on their own recovery while also helping those in the community who needed it the most.
We moved our game to Detroit, and the Lions were very gracious to host our game against the New York Jets. The Bills won the game, and we had a successful recovery from the storm. We played at home the following weekend against the Cleveland Browns and won that game, as well. We also used this game as a community-type recognition, to thank all the emergency first responders and agencies who helped the community during the crazy week we experienced. Even for Buffalo, this storm with seven feet of snow in such a short timeframe was an absolute anomaly!
EK: As a promoter/facility operator who predominately holds outdoor events, we have experienced several weather-related incidents and associated evacuations. These have a ranged from an F-4 tornado to a hurricane. While each of these was unique in their own right and resulted in valuable lessons learned, I cannot stress the importance of the utilization of an actual meteorologist on site or weather service to assist in decision making. It is also extremely important to have developed a trigger chart that provides your venue with the tools to help make an informed decision. These triggers may be different from one event to another and should take into account multiple elements such as wind and lightning—not just one element.
Another great lesson we have learned over the years is to make sure a venue truly understands the shelter in place capacity they have for a particular hazard. This is fairly easy to calculate and is a valuable process.
BL: How does your severe weather communication plans differ from other safety and security plans you have in place?
AM: This doesn’t differ too much. The main difference is that we include all the relative snow removal teams (contractors, partners, staff) in the communication tree. The emergency preparedness piece is in place for all related weather or security related events/issues.
EK: Probably the biggest difference is that more people tend to believe they are “weather experts” as opposed to security or other topics. To a certain degree, you have to counter this to ensure that all staff understand the decision-making process and where factual information is coming from.
BL: How do you envision technology in five years improving to help you with severe weather preparedness?
AM: We envision the future utilization of our Bills mobile app for fans to access important real-time information regarding emergency situations at our venue. We also envision using all social media platforms to communicate with our staff and fans as we have in the past. The Bills are currently using a very good weather forecasting app that helps us with our severe weather forecasting and game-day planning. I would envision this technology to continue to improve so that there is less and less chance for surprise weather situations.
EK: While the technology and information available to the everyday citizen and/or staff member continue to improve, there can be a down side as well. As more and more tools are available on smartphones etc., we have to make sure that the correct interpretation goes along with it. From a scalability aspect, evacuating a Little League game based on a weather app may certainly be appropriate but larger events still need to rely on and utilize meteorologists that better understand the additional aspects of a storm.