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Senate bill proposes centralizing Weather Service forecasting in 6 regional offices

The National Weather Service forecast office in Norman, Okla.

The Senate Commerce Committee is introducing a bill on Tuesday that would consolidate forecasting at 122 National Weather Service (NWS) forecast offices into six regional offices.

The measure and its supporters argue that it would make NWS forecast operations more efficient and nimble while saving money. Opponents say it would reduce jobs and significantly compromise forecast quality by dispersing the trove of local knowledge within the nation’s forecasting network.

The National Weather Service Improvement Act would order the NWS to come up with a plan for establishing regional forecasting centers within a year of enactment. It recommends that these centers be co-located with a university or government lab and staffed to ensure that local forecast quality would not be not “degraded.” After a review of the plan from the National Academy of Sciences, the NOAA administrator is ordered to set up the regional hubs within a year.

“Focusing the National Weather Service’s resources regionally would improve the public’s access to quality forecasting and reduce the danger of local staff being overwhelmed during severe weather outbreaks,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who is sponsoring the legislation. “Reforming an agency and increasing accountability will always be a challenge, but increasing public access to quality forecasting can save lives.”

Commerce Committee staff members said a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “Weather Service for the Nation: Becoming Second to None,” was the motivation for the bill.

“The most important benefit from the regionalization of the public weather forecast task is to diminish the chances of the local staff being overwhelmed during severe weather outbreaks,” the NAS report said. “The extra time at the local offices can be invested in the increasingly important role of coordinating and communicating impact weather decision support.”

The bill says cost savings from consolidating forecasting would enable NOAA to reinvest in the following areas: expanding super-computing capacity, improving weather forecasts, enhancing communication of weather forecasts to the public, and expanding the use of ground-based observations and strengthening radar coverage where necessary.

Although the measure mandates centralizing forecasting operations at six regional offices, it would not result in closure of any of the existing 122 forecast offices. Rather, it specifies that these offices maintain a warning coordination meteorologist to serve as a liaison with emergency management for storm preparedness and response activities as well as to conduct media and public outreach. Offices also would continue to maintain radar instrumentation and launch weather balloons.

The bill is strongly opposed by the NWS Employees Organization (NWSEO), a labor union that for years has fought any measure that might consolidate forecast offices and potentially result in fewer meteorologists within the NWS.

Senate Commerce Committee staff stressed that the bill is “resource neutral” — meaning that no jobs are added or taken away. But the NWSEO says that the centralization of jobs would, in time, lead to fewer positions and a deterioration in forecasting quality.

“Likely it would mean the elimination of over 1000 meteorologists jobs,” said Dan Sobien, president of the NWSEO. “It would take a decade for the field of meteorology to recover from a blow like that and those meteorologists to be absorbed back into the enterprise.”

The NWSEO also worries that the consolidation would effectively sever the flow of local knowledge and expertise into the forecast process. Richard Hirn, counsel for the NSEO, wrote a commentary warning that predictions made by meteorologists unfamiliar with local geography and effects would suffer, citing academic studies:

[A study] concluded that there was evidence “that a transition from local to regional scale forecasting of heavy precipitation would lead to a reduction in accuracy,” and confirmed [professor Paul] Roebber’s earlier conclusions that “local knowledge can be an important contributing factor when highly skilled forecasters construct forecasts.”

Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, echoed this concern. “While I am certainly for improved efficiency in our system, I am a bit concerned that such a move could undermine the local to regional expertise that is so valuable in emerging weather threats,” Shepherd said. “A forecaster in Norman, Oklahoma, may appreciate regional nuances in a manner that someone elsewhere may not.”

But others in the meteorological community welcomed legislation that could streamline the production of forecasts, including David Titley, a former deputy under secretary for operations at NOAA.

“The Senate should be congratulated on starting an important conversation regarding the 21st century structure of the National Weather Service,” said Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Penn State University. “The 2011 National Academies assessment of the NWS modernization and restructuring reminds us of the dangers of waiting until obsolescence to modernize. While there will almost certainly be pushback and resistance, this is a serious, thoughtful and constructive proposal that should be considered carefully.”

Scott Rayder, senior adviser at the University Centers for Atmospheric Research and previously the chief of staff to then-NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, said there is a “great deal to like and not like” about the specifics of the bill. He praised its general rationale.

“The NWS budget is $1 billion annually and the NWS always gets the funding it needs, but you have to ask what is the right size and structure as a matter of good management,” Rayder said.

Independently, in response to a 2013 report from the National Academy of Public Adminsitration, the NWS has contracted the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to study its organizational structure and workforce. It seeks to obtain guidance from McKinsey on how it should be adapting and evolving its service model to meet the changing needs of society. McKinsey is surveying and interviewing NWS staff and also external constituents and customers.

The bill is the third piece of weather-related legislation to be introduced this year. Previous measures, focused on improving short-term and long-range forecasting, were introduced and passed through committees in the House and the Senate this spring.

Senate introduces bill to improve seasonal weather forecasts

Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015

In addition to its plan to consolidate forecasting operations, the legislation includes language mandating disclosures related to NWS contracting activities, after Congress learned that a senior official wrote his own job description for a cushy post-retirement consulting position and then was back at work the day after he left.