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Lightning sensor helped clear ball field

June 22, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer

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Lightning sensor

The winds and rain of last week's tornadoes caught many Washington County residents off guard, but the Federal Little League was prepared thanks to a high-tech device.

--cont from front page--

As the teams battled it out on the field off Northern Avenue Tuesday, nothing except a slight darkening of the sky suggested the fury that was just minutes away.

But league officials kept an eye on the storm with the Skyscan, a handheld device that measures static electricity in the air. The device, which can detect a lightning storm up to 20 miles away, gave the league plenty of warning.

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"It's come in handy the last two days," said Larry Hammond, league president. "As it was coming, we were watching it."

When the Skyscan showed the storm was three to eight miles away, Hammond said officials ordered all of the players off the field.

The wind and rain were still not there. By the time they were, Hammond said the players and their parents were in their cars.

"We got them all out of here," he said.

The storm - which weather officials later confirmed was a tornado - was one of several over the last two seasons that league officials were able to detect before the lightning came crashing down, enabling them to get kids out of harm's way .

"It used to be if the lightning got real close, we'd call it off and pull the kids off," Hammond said. "It's been a lifesaver It takes a lot of the guesswork out."

Hammond said the Skyscan was donated to the league by Butch Plank, a parent who is also a sales representative for the Tampa, Fla.-based company that manufactures the device.

Plank, who is also the league's safety coordinator, said Skyscan Inc. began making the devices about six years ago with the same technology that airplanes use to detect lightning. He said waiting for the storm to arrive is risky because lightning can strike from as far away as 10 miles.

"You can have a storm in Clear Spring and be on the front end of it," he said. "Every league should have one."

But few do. Several Little League presidents in Washington County said they do not use lightning detectors, although two said they are actively researching the possibility.

Dave Litten, president of the Maugansville Little League, said about 250 players and fans were caught in Tuesday's storm. That convinced him to order a device, he said.

If it were not for a parent with a police scanner, Litten said the league would have had no warning of the storm. As it was, he said officials had only about eight minutes.

"At that point, I started scrambling and trying to get the kids off the field," he said.

Litten said the league had been considering getting a lightning detector. The storm prompted them to order a $300 model.

"This definitely forced the issue," he said. "I think it's vital for the league."

Garry Barnhart, president of the Valley Little League in Hagerstown, said he plans to bring up the issue at the next board meeting. He said his players, too, were caught by surprise on Tuesday.

"The next night, it did the same thing," he said. "It came right up to the field and we didn't know it was coming."

The price dropped rapidly over the last couple of years, making a lightning detector more attractive to youth sports officials.

Plank said the Skyscan retailed for about $220 when he gave one to the Federal Little League two years ago. It now costs $75.

Bob Lytle, who has two sons in the Federal league, said it is reassuring to know that officials have more than their eyes to judge electric storms.

Tuesday was a perfect example, he said.

"There was really nothing going on. No wind. No rain. It was just dark," he said. "That machine tells you just how close it is That's not the first time that machine has come in handy."

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