Hiring freeze hobbling operations at local Weather Service office

nws-logo1The National Weather Service office serving Washington and Baltimore has lost a third of its forecasting staff in the last year and, due to a NOAA-wide hiring freeze, no relief is around the corner. This deficit has forced the suspension of a major pilot project aimed at helping the local community prepare for extreme weather.

The pilot project, part of the NWS’s Weather Ready Nation program, was kicked off with much fanfare last fall, with a launch event headlined by speeches from Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and then-NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

Chris Vaccaro, a spokesperson for the NWS, said suspension of the pilot project was among the staffing alternatives evaluated  “to alleviate pressures caused by vacancies.”

The pilot project was staffed by 3 emergency response meteorologists, who have been re-assigned to help fill the gap left by the 5 departed forecasters according to David Murray, head of the NWS Workforce Management Office.

“I want to formally notify you of management’s intent to temporarily suspend the pilot at the Sterling Office,” Murray wrote in an email to Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization (NWSEO), a labor union. “We intend to use the [meteorologists] in that pilot to cover the vacant shifts at Sterling.”

Previously, the emergency response meteorologists were tasked to assist “on the scene” during major weather events, offering on-demand briefings to emergency managers and stakeholders. They also were charged with developing more event-specific forecasts, explaining possible impacts in detail, and getting key messages out using new communication technologies and social media.

The decision to put the pilot program on hold comes after Jim Lee, the meteorologist-in-charge, unsuccessfully applied for a waiver to fill his office’s vacancies.

In an email posted on Facebook by the independent group “Protect the National Weather Service”, Lee warned his supervisor, Jason Tuell, director of the NWS’s Eastern Region, of the strain of the vacancies on his staff. He said the situation was compromising morale, could lead to burn out, and could also negatively affect forecast operations during severe weather and hurricane situations.

“I appeal to you as NWS Eastern Region Director to do whatever you can to influence decision-makers to approve waivers to fill the five long-standing … vacancies as soon as possible,” Lee wrote. “Filling these vacancies will promote effective operations during our severe weather and tropical weather seasons.”

But management turned down his request.

“Our waiver was rejected,” Lee said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re looking at other means [to deal with the vacancies].”

In the absence of filling the vacancies, Lee had proposed suspending weather balloon releases 4  days per week to ease the burden on staff, a measure which was denied.

“We’re trying  to determine other courses of action to maintain [balloon] releases and the integrity of the most critical forecasting and warning processes” explained Jason Tuell, Lee’s boss.

Tuell noted other National Weather Service offices are also dealing with staffing constraints.

Since October 2010, the NWS workforce has shrunk by 291 employees. NWSEO’s Sobien expressed concerns about the effects of staffing vacancies on weather operations at Sterling and across the country.

“I do not believe some of the NWS offices around country are going to be able to provide the functions and services that people have come to depend on,” Sobien said.

Sobien noted, for example, the Fairbanks, Alaska office is down 8 forecasters, and the Tallahassee, Fl. office is down 4.

As it stands, even with the 3 pilot project meteorologists stepping in, the Sterling office is down two forecasters.

“The last two years,  [the Sterling office] has had to deal with tropical systems Irene and Sandy,” Lee said in his email to Tuell. “Even with a full complement of operational staff, meeting the needs of forecast operations and core customer requirements was challenging.”

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