Investigation: Changes under the radar for National Weather Service field offices

13News Now Laura Geller has the story

This story was investigated by our sister station, WVEC in Norfolk, Virginia. 

Severe weather like hurricanes, thunderstorms and tornadoes are conditions weather centers talk about a lot. The National Weather Service plays a key role in warning folks when and where theycan expect life-threatening storms.

WVEC 13News uncovered a plan that could scale back hours at field offices across the country.

MORE: 13News Now Investigates: Changes under the radar

It's part of a plan to "evolve" the National Weather Service and make it more efficient in an effort to create what agency leadership is calling "a weather-ready nation." The folks who work inside those field offices -- the ones local emergency managers and meteorologists work with to make sure people are safe -- say a storm is brewing.

The National Weather Service gives watches and warnings. Weather teams use the critical information you often see in the red alert bar on the bottom of your screen or top of our website to let you know dangerous conditions could be headed our way.

“It really is a partnership where we're working together when making forecasts, especially for some of the bigger events or when severe weather is moving through,” 13News Now Director of Weather Content Evan Stewart explained.

While plans to keep the New Orleans office a 24/7 facility, the field office in Wakefield, Virginia could be scaling back to more of a nine to five schedule, and some are concerned it could jeopardize the partnerships between local news stations. 

PHOTOS: Inside the National Weather Service in Wakefield

On a fair weather day, there are at minimum three meteorologists forecasting from the Wakefield office. On the day WVEC visited, James, Wayne, Mike and Tim are examining the data. If severe weather were to come in, that number would at least double. They have the ability to forecast and issue alerts from eleven different work stations.

“The office has people that are experts on southeast Virginia, northeast North Carolina and Maryland,” Scott Schumann, who is a representative of the NWS employee union and works at the Wakefield Office, said. “These guys have been here for 20-plus years. They know the climatology. They know the patterns of the mid-Atlantic.”

The union is concerned about draft plans presented to employees and upper management, which were leaked to 13News Now. They detail changes in operations for the agency.

Officials told WVEC the goal of the proposal is to "better align our staffing profile and workload to better meet our partners' growing need for impact-based decision support services..."

What does that mean? A spokesperson said the National Weather Service has to do a better job of connecting the dots for local decision makers. Great forecasts don't matter if those decision makers aren't using them properly.

But to do that, WVEC confirmed one of the options on the table is shifting offices that are now open and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to "normal business hours."

NCEP Annual Operating Plan Meeting: Evolve NWS PMO by 13News Now on Scribd

WVEC asked if there would be changes citizens would see if the Wakefield office moved away from 24/7/365 staffing. 

“They would see a degradation of services,” Schumann assessed.

Officials said the changes will give staff more flexibility to work closely with emergency managers, but Schumann countered the so-called "part-timing" would actually hurt existing relationships.

“They call us,” Schumann described. “They know who we are by name. We know most of them by name. So that's something that they want to have is a phone call away.”

Schumann believes those local officials would have to speak to NWS staffers two hours away.

"Just like getting your forecast here from somebody at 13News Now versus somebody in say New York or LA,” Stewart explained. “You want somebody who's local, somebody who lives and works in the area, somebody who knows all the fine nuances of the area when making a forecast.”

Leadership maintains they are not proposing closing any forecast offices, centralizing forecasting or reducing staff. Still, some workers are skeptical how the agency is going to keep the same staffing numbers if some of the offices are only open part of the time they currently operate.

Right now, there's a lot of confusion on the future forecast of the National Weather Service.

“Weather is 24/7,” Stewart added. “You can have weather events any time in the day or night, so not having a full staff 24/7 just didn't make sense to me.”

WVEC asked specifically if the Wakefield office is one that will shift its office hours to business hours. The spokesperson added offices where this might make sense have not yet been identified.

The acting director of public affairs for the National Weather Service emailed the following response to 13News Now:

National Weather Service Response by 13News Now on Scribd

 

© 2017 WVEC-TV


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