Weathering the Storm

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With adventure parks sprouting up in all regions of the country, consistency and guest safety are more relevant than ever. And with many parks aiming to stay open year-round, the growing industry is even more pressed to stay on top of managing and mitigating weather-related safety, including cold, heat, snow, wind, and even fire danger.

Threat Number One

Lightning remains the most prevalent weather-related concern among park operators. The elevated locations and abundance of metal found in adventure parks’ infrastructure make for an obvious risk.

“You’re going to have varying amounts of lightning exposure with all the new types of operations out there,” says Russ Murley, operations manager for Precision Weather, a specialized forecasting service based in New England. “With such things as canopy tours, freestanding ropes courses, or zip lines, you have more exposure with metallic elements. You’ve got a wire rope running through the features.”

Andrew Batten, director of attractions at Central Florida’s Brevard Zoo, home of the Treetop Trek Aerial Adventures park, says lightning is “a constant concern.” Central Florida is a hotbed of thunderstorm activity, and lighting interrupted or suspended operations at Treetop Trek 85 days in 2014.

To deal with the threat, Batten and staff have become accustomed to quick evacuations on the course when lightning is near. When thunder is detected, it indicates that lighting is about 10 miles away, and the course
is cleared.

This means the 20-acre adventure park, which includes an aerial obstacle course and 13 zip lines, shuts down, and all guests are brought to ground level and to a safe zone. Depending on the severity of the storm, buildings in various locations are utilized for safety shelters, including storm-hardened structures that are used when the threat is highest.

Batten says that one staff member at the Brevard Zoo is constantly watching weather radar during peak summer lightning months. In addition, pre-programmed radios notify the safety operations staff when weather is incoming, and a variety of weather websites are constantly monitored. The entire staff at the zoo, paid and volunteer, is also trained to listen for thunder and watch for lightning. The protocol is that even if the outside weather technology isn’t showing risk, if a staff member sees lightning or hears thunder, they radio in the information and operations are suspended.

Staff at Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is known to keep operations going in rain or snow and has had wildfires burn close enough to pose danger, is also the most concerned about lightning.

“When there’s lightning within six miles, we pull everyone down and wait 30 minutes to reopen, if there is no more lightning in that time span,” says owner Paul Kent. “But we restart the timer if there is more lightning.”

Flagstaff Extreme uses a paid service through Schneider Electric that sends texts when a lightning strike is reported within six miles. When the alarm is sounded, everyone is lowered and taken inside the welcome center at the entrance to the park, a short walk from anywhere on the course, to wait for the lighting to subside.

Kent acknowledges there are high-quality weather services and lighting notification systems available for free, with a listing of options on the National Weather Association website (nwas.org). But given his location on public land, he prefers to use a third party. “We operate through a lease with the Forest Service, and therefore I feel it’s in our best interest to use a third-party service,” says Kent. “[It] takes the judgment call out of it.”

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About Author

Dave Zook grew up surrounded by adventure on the coast of California just north of San Francisco. He started gathering stories before he had a clue how to convert them into magazine articles while playing in the surf and on the trails of Marin County. Eventually that led to journalism school in Oregon where he shaped that interest into a craft, graduating in 2005. He has been pursuing that craft from Oregon to New Zealand and beyond. He is now based in the mountains of Lake Tahoe. He continues to write about his never-ending hunt for adventure.

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