A National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman, Okla., tracks a super cell tornado outbreak. (National Weather Service)

After the onslaught of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, the United States is enduring one of its most costly years for extreme weather.  A near-record 16 billion-dollar weather disasters have ravaged the nation. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service workforce is spread razor thin, with hundreds of vacant forecast positions.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization, its labor union, said the lack of staff is taking a toll on forecasting operations and that the agency is “for the first time in its history teetering on the brink of failure.” Managers are being forced to scale back certain operations, and staff are stressed and overworked.

“It’s gotten so bad that we’re not going to be able to provide service that two years ago we were able to provide to public, emergency managers and media,” said Dan Sobien, the president of the union. “We’ve never been in that position before.”

As one example of an overburdened Weather Service office, the team of 15 forecasters serving the Washington and Baltimore region will be short five full-time staff heading into the winter months, according to Ray Martin, a union representative who works there. He said the office is short a senior forecaster, a general forecaster, two junior forecasters, and the lead for its weather observation program —  a position that has remained vacant for two years.

Martin said staff morale is in the tank. “Some people have been denied vacations, because there are not enough bodies to fill shifts,” he said. “I, myself, worked a 15-hour day about a week ago. You get a lot less sleep. You start to wonder if you’re safe on the road. You don’t see your loved ones, which eats into family life.”

Martin added that the office is cutting shifts and that one afternoon and evening forecasting desk, charged with analyzing weather radar, won’t be staffed all winter long “because we just don’t have the bodies.” Forecasters staffing other desks will have to monitor radar by committee, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Whether the cutbacks will affect the quality of forecasts and warnings, “I can’t say for certain,” Martin said. “You’re working people double shifts, some people aren’t getting days off, and you’re grinding people down. There is that potential [to affect the forecast quality]. The longer this goes on, the more the potential rises. It’s a long winter ahead.”

The Burlington Free-Press reported similar circumstances at the forecast office serving its region. “Given our staffing, our ability to fill our mission of protecting life and property would be nearly impossible if we had a big storm,” Brooke Taber, a Weather Service forecaster and union steward, told the paper.

Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, pushed back on any notion the organization is neglecting obligations to constituents and the health of its staff. “Let me state emphatically that we would never take an action that would jeopardize the services we provide to emergency managers and the public,” she said. “NWS is taking definitive steps to ensure the health and well-being of our employees through guidance to local managers on scheduling and flexibility.”

For the past five years, the union has loudly voiced concerns about staff vacancies and their consequences, even filing grievances. The Weather Service has faced different obstacles in trying to fill positions, including the 2013 budget sequester, related hiring freezes, and changes in administrations. In 2012, challenged to find funding to compensate its workers, it was embroiled in a “reprogramming” scandal, in which it moved around funds to cover payroll, without congressional approval.

“The NWS leadership has been incapable of placing their budget priorities correctly,” the union said in a news release this week. “In fact, the NWS nationwide has not had full staffing levels for at least seven years.”

A union fact sheet on the vacancy issues stressed “understaffing is not due to underfunding,” stating that Congress has fully funded the Weather Service since the 2013 fiscal year and that there have been “unspent carry-over funds” in the tens of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, those funds haven’t been earmarked for staffing, and the vacancy problem has worsened.

An independent report from the Government Accountability Office showed staff vacancies increased 57 percent from 2014 to 2016. The overall vacancy rate reached 11 percent or 455 positions at the end of 2016 up from just 5 percent (211 positions) at the end of 2010, the report said.

The union believes the number of vacancies is even higher, closer to 700.

Buchanan asserts the union is exaggerating the number of vacancies, which she said is closer to 226 or 5 percent. “The 700 vacancy figure cited by the union was based on an old organization table that does not reflect the agency’s current staffing profile,” she said.

But Sobien said that, unless the Weather Service cut several hundred jobs in the last seven years — without a mandate to do so, its numbers are misleading. “They’re just not filling positions and saying they don’t exist anymore,” he said. “They’re moving vacancies around the country and not filling them with new bodies. They’re playing a game with these numbers. I don’t even know if it’s legal.”

A senior official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service, said the number of positions the agency can fill has necessarily decreased due to congressional appropriations. The official said the agency has not eliminated positions. While the “ceiling” for the total number of positions is 4,890 per the National Weather Service Table of Organization, the official said the number of positions is 4,453 people under the 2017 fiscal year appropriations act. “We believe this level is adequate to achieve National Weather Service core functions,” the official said.

In sum, the severity of the vacancy situation depends on whether it is based on the total number of positions in the legacy organizational table or the total number of positions for which Congress has provided funding. The union and the Government Accountability Office base their vacancy numbers on the organizational table, which leads to much higher total of unfilled positions compared with the Weather Service.

Buchanan stressed the Weather Service is aggressively moving to fill open slots. “We’re working with NOAA to prioritize NWS field hiring actions to address the most critical need and to streamline the security clearance process to expedite hiring,” she said. “We are also releasing a nationwide announcement for lead forecaster positions this week and are planning batch hires of meteorologist interns three times per year.”

The vacancy situation has not gone unnoticed by Congress. In its 2018 fiscal year budget markup for the Weather Service, the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote that the “extended vacancies are unacceptable — particularly when the Committee has provided more than adequate resources and direction to fill vacancies expeditiously for the past several years.”

It directed NOAA to fully account for all filled and open positions in its fiscal year 2018 spending plan. It acknowledged some Weather Service positions “may be redundant,” but instructed the Weather Service to develop justifications for eliminating any positions. “Until such time as a plan to eliminate those vacancies is approved, NWS is directed to continue to fill all vacancies as expeditiously as possible,” the committee budget markup said.

Postscript

On social media – Eric Blake, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center (which falls under the NWS) and Gary Szatkowski, a former meteorologist-in-charge, retired from the NWS office serving the Philadelphia area, attested to the staffing problems:

A third forecaster also posted that his position, vacated 5 months ago, remains unfilled:

Read more:

Trump’s hiring freeze shrank National Weather Service staff before hurricanes hit

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