NWS seeks to turn staff into communicators

By Emily Yehle | 09/30/2016 01:17 PM EDT

Six days before torrential rain flooded Baton Rouge, La., the National Weather Service released a hazardous weather outlook.

Six days before torrential rain flooded Baton Rouge, La., the National Weather Service released a hazardous weather outlook.

Four days out, the local NWS office sent an email updating partners of the gaining certainty of a storm. By Tuesday — three days before the official flash flood warning — forecasters were already busy doing webinars and briefings for emergency managers.

The Aug. 12 flood was historic, displacing thousands of people and leaving 13 dead. But a decade ago, NWS would not have provided briefings, a heads-up or webinars. Its forecasters would have reported the forecast, period.


"Early in my career, you put out a forecast, and I pressed enter. You put out a warning, and I pressed enter. There might be some calls from partners, maybe an interview, but that was it," said Ken Graham, the meteorologist in charge of the agency’s New Orleans office. Today, "there is a whole demand for science and expertise that is beyond pressing enter."

NWS Director Louis Uccellini envisions a workforce that meets a growing demand for what the agency calls "impact-based decision support services" (IDSS). This week, he announced an ambitious plan to restructure his staff, freeing it up to focus more on communicating the impacts of forecasts to federal, state and local officials.

"We believe in it, we see examples of where it’s working, and we see needs increasing," Uccellini told reporters Wednesday. "We’ve just got to position our workforce."

The plans are the latest in the agency’s efforts to keep pace with modern technology and societal demands. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration have each released reports in recent years urging NWS to evolve.

Congress has considered forcing the agency’s hand with legislation. A bill from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would require NWS to create six regional forecasting offices, freeing up the nation’s 122 local forecasting offices for communication and coordination (E&E Daily, June 17, 2015).

Uccellini described a less drastic proposal Wednesday, based on a workforce analysis from consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The analysis found that the agency would need the equivalent of 900 to 1,200 full-time employees to handle the demand for IDSS. But NWS will not be increasing its staff; instead, it plans to "unlock" the time of existing employees.

Ideas include automated weather balloons (which are now handled by staff), changing the 24-7 rotating shifts now used at local offices and more collaboration on models with regional offices.

Uccellini pointed to several reasons why NWS had to change its methods to meet its mission of ensuring the safety of life and property.

"This nation is increasingly vulnerable to extreme events — extreme weather, climate, water events," he said. "And there are different reasons for that. Increasing population in areas along the coast, in tornado alley, in the fire-prone areas. That’s one of the big changes over the last couple of years."

But the agency’s union is concerned that Uccellini is trying to do too much with too few staff. NWS has about 5,000 employees; 1,200 full-time equivalents mean that staff must free up 20 percent of its time.

Steve Pritchett, chairman of the headquarters region for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, argued it would fall disproportionately on forecasters in the nation’s 122 local offices. Altogether, he said, those offices have about 1,200 forecasters — equal to the 1,200 employees NWS says is needed to communicate forecasts to decisionmakers.

"If they did that they would completely take the forecaster out of the forecast process," he said, later adding: "Now that we have a modeler as director of the Weather Service, his decision is models are good enough that we can start replacing people with the models."

Graham said improvement in modeling has already freed up the time of some of his forecasters. But he sees the future as more of a mix, with forecasters who spend more of their time — but not all — communicating the impacts of forecasts.

He sees that as a whole-agency effort, with training and resources to keep up with growing demand.

"It’s taking 20 percent of the agency global head count to shift the focus more toward this impact-based decision services to support the entire effort," he said. "It’s not just me doing it at the office because I need help."