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Senate steps away from NWS restructuring proposal, puts emphasis on severe weather communication

A beautiful tornado churns up dust in the sunset light near Traer, IA on July 6, 2014. ( <a href="">Brad Goddard Photography</a> )

The Senate Commerce Committee is tabling a controversial proposal that would consolidate National Weather Service (NWS) forecasting into 6 regional offices.    But it is moving forward with legislation that aims to improve NWS severe weather communication.

S.1573, the National Weather Service Improvement Act, had proposed centralizing the forecasting operations currently dispersed at 122 NWS offices at 6 regional locations.  But the measure was opposed by some key members of Congress and  constituents in the weather and emergency management community, including the NWS’ labor union, the International Association of Emergency Managers and many broadcast meteorologists.  They felt centralizing forecasts could dilute their quality, since local knowledge and expertise play an important role for certain predictions.

[Senate Bill to centralize Weather Service forecasting draws heated reactions]

Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) and  Brian Schatz (D-H.I.) are introducing a bipartisan substitute amendment for the bill today that no longer includes the NWS reorganization provision.

The focus of the bill is a measure mandating NWS assess its system for issuing severe weather watches and warnings so that the public responds to these alerts more effectively.

[Senate holds hearing on improving weather forecast communication]

Research has shown the public finds the NWS alphabet soup of weather alerts complicated and confusing.  Many American, for example, don’t understand the difference between a severe weather “watch” and “warning”.

[December Nor’easter makes the case for simplifying the NWS warning system]

The measure asks the NWS to consult with Federal, non-Federal, broadcast media and emergency management in obtaining feedback for how to improve its  communication of weather hazards so that the public will be better prepared.  Within 5 years of enactment of the bill, the NWS is required to implement a new system for issuing watches and warnings.

The substitute amendment also retains language from the original bill 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.

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 (S.1331)

Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561)

Senate Commerce Committee staff said the three pieces of legislation, together, will be the basis for House and Senate discussion to enact bipartisan reform this Congress.

Although the measure to reorganize the NWS has been set aside, Senate Commerce Committee staff said longer term conversations about needed structural reforms will continue.