The Senate Bill (S. 1573) that would consolidate forecasting operations at the National Weather Service has sent shock waves across the weather and emergency management communities that are still reverberating.
Taking a pulse of the reactions, most people and groups seem opposed to the measure that would centralize the forecasting currently conducted at 122 local offices at 6 regional offices. Some politicians are also speaking out against the proposal.
However, there is also a school thought that the NWS structure must evolve and that this legislation, introduced by Senator John Thune (R-SD) who chairs the Commerce Committee, is stimulating an important dialog about how best to accomplish this.
Before summarizing some of the reactions to the Bill, it’s useful to understand why the current NWS structure exists. I reached out to Joe Friday, director of the NWS from 1988-1997, who led the 1990s “modernization” of the NWS which brought about the current configuration of 122 forecast offices. He explained co-location with radar sites was a key driver:
We started with the distribution of NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) radars, first along the Gulf and Atlantic seaboard. We then went in to the next tier of locations and continued across the country. We basically located a Weather Forecast Office (WFO) near or with each NWS NEXRAD. We moved where possible to take advantage of university locations that had a good atmospheric sciences program. The original plan had a few more offices, but in the final negotiations, the Office of Management and Budget insisted on a pound of flesh and reduced the number of offices. Political addbacks then resulted in the present number of offices.
The idea was to include a reasonable area for the forecast staff to cover with the radar coverage, etc.
In a 2011 report evaluating the 1990s modernization effort, the National Academy of Science praised the structure that was put into place. “Restructuring NWS offices and upgrading the staff brought more evenly-distributed, uniform weather services to the nation,” the report said.
The question now is whether the NWS structure implemented in the 1990s is the right structure for 2015 and beyond.
Senator Thune said the National Academy of Science 2012 report “Weather Service for the Nation: Becoming Second to None” touted the benefits of consolidating offices, which the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a labor union, disputes.
“The National Academy explained that ‘it did not have the charge or expertise to provide a recommendation about restructuring,'” wrote Richard Hirn, counsel to the NWSEO in a response to the Bill. Hirn explained the National Academy was simply exploring possibilities for future NWS structures as the Academy said it was “not endorsing any particular strategy.”
The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) issued a strong statement opposing the proposed restructuring, arguing that dispersing the dense network of forecast offices would compromise emergency preparedness and response.
“The lack of local coordination with the whole community of response organizations would most likely lead to loss of life and property,” said John “Rusty” Russell, IAEM president. “We depend on advance briefing when severe events are possible. The regional configuration proposed in S. 1573 would not be able to provide answers to specific questions from school systems, hospitals, public works, fire departments, law enforcement, public officials as well as the emergency management community.”
Several broadcast meteorologists I reached out to and/or who reacted to the Bill on Twitter worried both about the loss of direct contact with local NWS forecasters and the absence of forecasters who understand local climate patterns. Here’s a consolidated round-up of comments:
With climate change and a growing population, we need to have the best weather service in the world and the partnership between broadcast meteorologists and their local forecast offices is an example of a partnership between government and private industry that really works. We mess that up at our peril. – Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist, WBOC Salisbury, Md.
I can imagine regional centers doing well with large scale, synoptic events quite often. But I imagine the detail and accuracy of local forecasts will suffer in many locations, even to the extent in which the public safety may suffer…Considering the miniscule portion of the federal budget NWS receives, I fail to understand how such consolidation will make much more than a dime’s worth of difference in costs, with higher costs in diminishing quality of local information being a real risk. – Don Paul, chief meteorologist, WIVB, Buffalo, NY
Several members of Congress also expressed concerns if not downright opposition to the Bill. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee, opposes the consolidation provision in the Bill, but said he’d like to work with Thune on a compromise proposal.
“I’m optimistic Senator Thune and I will be able to work out something to address concerns raised by emergency managers and first responders on consolidating local weather forecast offices, including those in my home state,” Nelson said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), who also sits on the Commerce Committee, expressed reservations as well.”There are problematic potential impacts, perhaps unintended,” he said in statement published by NBCConnecticut. “One is that local expertise and familiarity with local needs may be lost, if centralization goes too far. I’ll be working with my colleagues to strengthen the bill.”
In the House, Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) released a statement objecting to the Bill. “I believe that consolidating offices would lead to some storms slipping through the cracks and ultimately lives would be lost due to missed warnings and missed opportunities to alert the public,” he said.
For Thune’s part, he told radio talk show host Jamie Dupree the Bill is simply a “conversation starter” intended to trigger discussions about needed reforms at NWS.
While many broadcast meteorologists were uncomfortable with the Bill, some saw merits in such a measure or at least a conversation about restructuring.
“I think a more centralized NWS would allow them to be more nimble – shifting meteorologists to focus on areas with hazardous and dangerous weather,” said Ryan Hanrahan, broadcast meteorologist for NBC Connecticut. “It would also improve continuity in forecasts and warnings that right now can be problematic around [forecast office] boundaries.”
He added: “I’m not sure this specific bill is the way to go but I do think starting a conversation about the most efficient way to use our existing resources is a good idea.”
Bob Ryan, retired broadcast meteorologist from Washington, D.C. who chairs the American Meteorological Society committee on improving weather communication, challenged the weather community to embrace an evolution of the NWS:
“Rather than circling the wagons to prevent any change from status quo, how about the community leading the charge into the future,” Ryan said. “Where were we 50 years ago? Where are we today? Where do we want to be 50 years from now? We forecast the future, we can help shape our profession’s future and its service to society. We are not linotype machinists!!”