National Weather Service criticized for moving away from local forecasts

Lightning taken at Circle C park (Courtesy: Oliver Gorrie)
Lightning taken at Circle C park (Courtesy: Oliver Gorrie)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Big changes are in the works for the National Weather Service in the near future. After gathering input from unions and analyzing workload, the government agency is proposing shifting some local offices away from being manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

This is all part of a new “Evolve” initiative the NWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) are planning to roll out in 2018.

The NWS Employees Organization, a union that represents NWS employees, believes this move could be a huge mistake that could be detrimental to communities.

Currently, any weather-related watches or warnings for the Austin and San Antonio areas are delivered from our local NWS in New Braunfels. However, Dan Sobien, president of NWS Employees Organization tells KXAN that these warnings would no longer be delivered from this office, but rather various hubs.

Sobien believes forecasts should be kept local, instead of using blended forecast models from other parts of the country. “It will degrade services and potentially even costs lives,” Sobien stresses.

The NWS says they will still continue providing full forecasts and alerts throughout the day to all of its offices and the quality of service will not be compromised. The agency’s proposal includes using a national blend of models as the initial starting point for forecasts and would be sent to local forecasters, who would then “take that initial forecast and contributed their unique knowledge and expertise.”

“Our goal is to save more lives by improving our products and services to America,” said Susan Buchanan, spokesperson for the NWS, said in an email to KXAN. “In no way will services degrade as a result of the effort to Evolve the National Weather Service.”

Buchanan explains the changes that are being implemented takes into consideration their employees as well as managing workload.

“Rather than being on shift at midnight during quiet weather when our partners are not at work, offices will collaborate to provide coverage 24/7/365, enabling more local NWS employees to sit at the planning table, or be side-by-side in the field with Emergency Management, for instance,” explained Buchanan. “Right now, they’re busy around the clock doing work that they don’t necessarily need to be doing.”

During periods of quiet weather, some offices from other regions will provide coverage so there is no lapse in service. When there is potential for severe weather, the local offices will always be staffed. Currently, it is not known if the New Braunfels office will be manned 24/7 under the new plan.

While the agency says they are not pushing for office closures, Sobien believes that shifting away from a local 24/7 operation would not only sacrifice accuracy, but could also lead to these offices closing permanently, down the road.

“There’s no question that the NWS really needs to change the way we forecast,” says Sobien, “But the idea should come from the meteorologist doing the job, not bureaucrats in Washington.”

The NWS plans to test and evaluate the new “Evolve” initiative in 2017, before officially implementing the change in 2018.

Editor’s Note: KXAN added statements from NWS after the original story aired.

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