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County to explore feasibility of lightning detection for beaches

August 4, 2014
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A debate surrounding the necessity versus inessential need for lightning monitoring systems on beachfronts will be topics of discussion in the near future for local government agencies. The matter has arisen in light of the recent lightning fatality and injuries on Fort Myers Beach.

During Tuesday's Lee County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Larry Kiker received approval from the board to act as a liaison among county officials to look into the feasibility of placing lightning alert systems at county beachfront parks. He hopes to coordinate that activity with other local government representatives and staff members who have knowledge on the subject.

Kiker believes the timing may be appropriate for discussion.

"I would like to come up with some kind of process that the Board and Town, for example, could make a first attempt to find out if this is feasible," said Kiker.

The conversation has to include Bonita Springs, Sanibel and all the other Lee County beachfront communities, he added.

"If it is good for one, it is probably good for others," Kiker said. "From a county perspective, we have to include everyone inside the county boundaries."

Kiker recently spoke to Lee County Parks & Recreation Director Dave Harner and learned the issue of providing county beachfront properties with such lightning alert systems has been brought up before.

"There are so many different things involved. Everyone just needs to understand the significant issues," Kiker warned.

One of the issues is funding. Kiker said don't expect money to come from the Lee County Tourist Development Council. If approved down the road, Kiker said general funds from property tax collections would be tapped.

Another issue is legal ramifications. If the system is put in place and doesn't work during a given storm and injury or a fatality occurs due to a lightning strike, is the government agency liable?

"If the system doesn't work, we need to investigate if we just accepted liability for an 'act of God'," Kiker said flatly.

Yet another issue centers around the natural habitat. During the rainy summer months, birds and sea turtles nest on area beaches. Loud horns could disturb such delicate creatures.

"Just on Fort Myers Beach alone, there is bird nesting that is very sensitive," said Kiker. "You can be certain there are going to be conversations including environmentalists about what the effects of these horns would have on these birds."

Many area school systems and mainland parks have some sort of lightning alert systems in place.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais pointed out the controllability issue. Resources to enforce a high volume beach like Fort Myers Beach would also be difficult.

"In the parks, we have very finite control," he said. "We can enforce rules that say when the horn goes off there is lightning within 10 miles and parents and children have to go to their cars for safety. And, you don't get to come back onto the fields until a certain amount of time passes without lightning strike.

"When people are on the beach, I don't believe there is a way to enforce evacuating it when a horn goes off. We certainly don't have any jurisdiction when people are in the water. We have to ask the question 'what's the difference in liability for that kind of system versus what we have in the parks'?"

Beach Elementary School and Bay Oaks Recreational Campus on Estero Island do not have lightning alert systems in place.

The Town of Fort Myers Beach Public Safety Committee is expected to discuss the viability of lightning detection systems on Estero Island when it holds a joint session workshop with the Town Council, possibly in either late September or October.

Beach Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros, a former member of the safety committee and current liaison of the advisory board to Council, has been involved in preliminary discussions about such lightning systems during PSC meetings. Presentations have been made by three different companies that deal with lightning alert systems.

"We've looked at three different companies, and we collectively decided that we liked WeatherBug (Total Lightning Network) the best at that point in time," she said.

Hosafros stated the committee liked the fact that the WeatherBug system comes with its valuable apps.

"People would be able to access the information on their cell phones. So, in addition to having the system, people could see if a storm is coming closer or if it's going away," she said.

If beachfront locations are found impractical, Hosafros would like to see a lightning alert system go up at Bay Oaks, the noted Beach playground for ballgames, tennis matches, activities and a rental space for out-of-town athletes who play tournaments there.

"I am the one that is really advocating that we really need it at Bay Oaks if nothing else," she said. "You have kids out there playing ball, and they are out in the middle of a big field. My position is if we have to pull back from a total beach coverage, I think we still need to do it with Bay Oaks."

Hosafros confirmed that a committee member asked an official from the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District and was told the department would be willing to monitor a system and service it regularly.

"The fire department has agreed they are going to assist us with it. I think that is a great idea. They are the experts in emergencies anyway," said Hosafros. "It would be a great working relationship on a project between the Town and the fire department."

A noise issue may spring from a detection system. Would beachfront owners and businesses like the idea of blaring horns near their properties even if it was for such a life-saving cause?

"I know that the systems can be turned off at night, which is something I think we would strongly consider doing," said Hosafros. "When it's pitch black on the beach, you are not going to have the crowds out there."

A more cost-savings alternative to loud alert systems would be signs in place along beachfronts.

"One of the things that we've discussed is putting signs up that would encourage people to download an app for their smartphones from WeatherBug," said Desjarlais. "It's real-time lightning strike reporting that can be sent directly to your phone. So this would provide an alert for people who are laying on the beach who usually have their phones."

The matter has many avenues to explore. Public input will be part of any decision.

"I am very interested in having a public discussion so that everybody understands the pros and cons," Kiker said.



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