The National Weather Service, feeling the pressure of the challenging budget environment, is already cutting back on staffing and spending, a move that could compromise our nation’s preparedness for severe weather critics say.

On Thursday, NWS director Louis Uccellini instituted a mandatory spending freeze that applies to the hiring of management and management travel and training.

“Due to our budget uncertainties, we need to keep spending levels to a minimum,” begins a memo dated March 14 from Uccellini, which applies only to non-bargaining unit employees, mostly management.

The spending freeze on management is official, but of greater concern to the NWS’ labor union, the NWS Employees Organization (NWSEO), is what it’s calling an unofficial and unallowable freeze on NWS staff hiring: namely forecasters.

On March 13, NWSEO filed a grievance alleging NWS has failed to fill at least 21 lead forecaster vacancies.

“The failure to recruit and/or fill these 21 (and possibly other) vacancies is a continuing violation of the agreement negotiated between the parties ... which establish five lead forecast positions at every Forecast office,” says the grievance, penned by Dan Sobien, NWSEO president.

Two of the lead forecaster vacancies are at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Sterling, Va. which serves the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore regions. Susan Buchanan, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service, said interviews for the Sterling positions will begin next week.

Buchanan stressed there is no forecaster hiring freeze.

“Though the process is taking slightly longer than NOAA’s goal to hire within 80 days of the application deadline, the lead forecaster applications are actively being processed by NOAA’s Workforce Management Office,” Buchanan said. “We understand and share concerns that long-term vacancies are not in the best interest of the agency and its mission.”

Sobien said the forecaster vacancies are just the tip of the iceberg, and that there about 200 unfilled staff positions within the NWS.

“It’s phenomenal,” Sobien said. “The vacancy rate which was 3 percent just two years ago is up to 9 percent.”

For several years, the NWS has struggled to find funding to pay for its workers. Last year, it was embroiled in a “reprogramming” scandal in which it moved millions of dollars between accounts without Congressional approval.

Recognizing the squeeze on NWS’ budget in light of the sequester, Congressman Frank Wolf, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, sent a letter on March 5 to Rebecca Blank, Acting Commerce Department secretary, stating his committee “would be willing to consider a reprogamming on an an expedited basis” to prevent negative impacts on forecasting.

The Department of Commerce has warned sequestration could be detrimental to NWS operations, but there has been no official word of mandatory furloughs or hiring freezes applicable to forecasters.

According to Sobien, one sequestration proposal floated by NWS involves reducing the frequency and number of soundings, or weather balloons. The data from these soundings are important inputs for weather prediction models.

“It [the sounding reduction] would result in up to a 30 percent decrease in forecast accuracy,” Sobien said. “The cost to the country [of the reduced forecast accuracy] would be exponentially higher and could cost lives.”