Safety & Security

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Near-Tragedy with Light Pole Falling on Soccer Field is More Common than Event Owners Realize

3 Apr, 2019

By: Michael Popke

Even though fatal tragedy was averted in Clarksville, Arkansas, where an 80-foot wooden light pole fell on the field during a high school boys’ soccer game in early March, unstable poles fall more frequently than you might think.

In Arkansas, a strong gust of wind uprooted the light pole at its base and sent it crashing onto the Panther Stadium field, where it narrowly missed crushing a player and a college-age referee. The player suffered head and leg injuries, while the referee sustained a broken leg and fractured femur, according to KFSM-TV in Fort Smith, Ark. See video footage of the incident here.

KFSM reported that parents said the remaining five wooden light poles “looked like they could snap at any moment, too” as a result of high winds. Local authorities evacuated the stadium, and the rest of the day’s games were canceled. Clarksville Public Schools Superintendent David Hopkins told the Little Rock Fox affiliate that the field will be closed until the other poles are assessed and the cause of the incident is determined.

“If, in fact, it comes back that it was possibly just strong winds, then we’re going to look at protocols to cease games during high winds,” Hopkins said, adding that the district also might consider investing in new metal light poles.

What happened in Arkansas is not an isolated incident.

Last fall, a light pole at Butler Elementary School in Lockport, Ill., fell on three school-age children, fracturing the rib of at least one boy and forcing district officials to remove three more unstable poles. According to Chicago’s CBS-TV affiliate, “the light pole’s collapse illuminated another issue: a report issued less than one year ago by Tria Architecture, detailing $36.6 million in needed infrastructure repairs or improvements at [district schools]. The report stated that Butler School needed $3.6 million in repairs. Light poles were not part of the suggested repairs.”

And in 2017, a wooden telephone pole knocked loose by strong winds fell and struck a teenage girl at a high school football game in Ellwood City, Pa. According to local news reports, “the pole also fell on an ambulance that was on standby in case anyone was injured at [the game].”

“A common point of failure is the area of the pole shaft immediately above where it is welded to the base plate,” according to Athletic Business magazine, which quoted the president of a company at the time known as ReliaPOLE Solutions Inc. The article helped shed light on the vulnerability of light poles. “In every weld, you have what’s called a heat-affected zone,” Wesley Oliphant told the magazine for athletic, recreation and fitness professionals in 2009. “The heat of the welding process causes metallurgical changes in the surrounding material, and it becomes more brittle. Special care by qualified technicians must be taken to ensure that any welding procedure does not adversely affect the design strength of the pole.”

Oliphant is now a principal and chief technical officer at Exo — a Texas-based company that combined the services of ReliaPOLE and an aerial inspection business to provide infrastructure inspection, evaluation and repair services.

In February, EXO digitally published a white paper titled “Seeing Clearly: How to Successfully Manage Structural Lighting Assets,” intended for operators of parks and recreation, school, and college and university facilities. “It’s time to move beyond asking the question ‘is it working?’ and focus on the structures in place,” according to EXO’s website. “True lighting asset management ensures structural soundness, so you can have confidence in the longevity of your assets.”

Indeed, what Oliphant told Athletic Business a decade ago still rings true today: “[Safety officials] inspect every electrical transmission pole at least every five to 10 years, and those are poles that are out in the middle of the woods. They’re not nearly as critical as poles sitting behind a stadium full of people.”

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