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August 22, 2017

Lightning-Fast Safety Response

Lightning may not strike twice, but striking once is bad enough. Thanks to the diligence of Stageline tech Francis Kopajko, when lightning struck a SAM440 during the leadup preparations for an evening show in Rouyn-Noranda on August 11, the stage had already been evacuated, and no one was hurt.

Mid-afternoon that day, technical people were all over the SAM440, preparing it for day two of the three-day Osisko en Lumière festival, to be headlined that night by Sum 41. The band itself was being interviewed backstage, while rehearsals and final preparations were happening all onstage around them. Kopajko, however, was watching his WeatherOps technology very carefully.

“I was expecting bad weather,” Kopajko says. “It was getting dark a few miles away, and there was some serious rain beginning. I saw some lightning from a few miles off and I got an update on my cell phone from WeatherOps. After that I called the evacuation.”

While Stageline’s Weather Ops have a live meteorologist they can call for a confirmation, Kopajko didn’t wait to talk to an expert before making the call. He had enough experience to trust his gut feeling and start the evacuation.

Unfortunately, with the stage full of different parties—artists, producers, and promoters—not everybody wanted to heed Kopajko’s warning. The show was set to start at 6:00pm and no one wanted to see it delayed.

“People don’t realize when it comes to lightning that it’s dangerous. I had to tell people seven or eight times and be very persuasive. There were eight or nine people onstage, and I had to ask them again and again,” Kopajko says. “Four or five minutes later, the lightning hit—we saw a fireball maybe 20 feet away. It is loud, and it smells like sulphur.”

The lightning struck the upstage-right corner post and exited through a pipe on an upstage fog machine—and the stage was empty, so everyone was safe.

This was all in line with Stageline’s strict weather threshold policies. We get daily forecasts and text-message alerts from our Weather Decision Technologies’ WeatherOps event-safety service to keep us abreast of wind, weather, and lightning that might threaten the safety of the people on and around a stage. In situations where there is lightning within an 8-mile (12-km) radius of the stage, our policy is always to clear all personnel, period. A stage is by its nature the tallest building in the middle of a vast, wide-open space, and it is full of electronics. For lightning, there is little else as attractive as that. That policy, together with Francis Kopajko’s firm order to evacuate the stage, saved lives.

WeatherOps weather safety expert Dax Cochran agrees. His event-safety service provides us weather updates specifically matched to stage thresholds and triggers for calls like opening windwall doors, removing screens, releasing windwalls, and clearing personnel.

“We’re only able to be successful if our customers are heavily invested in the entire process,” Cochran says. “We can get a lightning alert to anyone in the world, but if they don’t know what to do when they get that alert, that doesn’t mean a lot. We love organizations like Stageline who go the additional mile. They’re not just setting up a weather service as a façade—they’ve got the safety plans and training in place behind it to make the weather information meaningful.”

After all that, of course, the show must go on—and it did. Once Kopajko determined that the weather threat had passed, he sounded the all clear and personnel returned to the stage, certainly a little shaken. There were repairs to make and some delays as a result (opening act Rancoeur unfortunately had their set cancelled), but the doors opened only an hour late. And that’s impressive, but a lot more than that is the knowledge that every person onstage went home safe and unscathed. Stageline is proud to make exceptional events happen, but we’re prouder still to say we always make them happen safely.