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Weather Service vacancies concern during severe weather year

The General Accountability Office opened an inquiry last month into vacancies at the National Weather Service after concerns from elected officials that forecasters are being stretched too thin, even as lives are threatened by El Nino-fortified severe weather.

Miami’s weather service office, which is responsible for a six-county area and about 6 million people, has one of the highest number of vacancies nationwide, according to the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

The office is running with about 60 percent of its operating staff, says the union, which counts eight empty or soon-to-be vacant positions in Miami among those responsible for alerting when storms, like the five tornadoes that hit Florida this month, are possible.

“We were lucky the tornadoes largely impacted the Tampa and Melbourne forecast offices’ area of responsibility,” said Dan Sobien, the union’s president. “In both events, the worst of the weather went in between (Tallahassee and Miami).”

Tallahassee has six vacant jobs or pending vacancies, whereas Tampa and Melbourne are more fully staffed, Sobien said. In 122 weather forecasting offices nationwide, there are about 280 non-management weather service vacancies, according to the union.

It is a situation of enough concern that weather offices in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast assembled a “Crisis Communication Guidebook” that included specific instructions on how to respond to the media when a severe weather warning is missed because of low staffing.

“I do worry that National Weather Service staff working 12-hour, 18-hour and even longer shifts will make a mistake due to exhaustion,” Sobien said. “Having said that, you will not find more dedicated Employees than those of the NWS.”

Why staffing matters

On Jan. 9 just after sunset, an EF-2 tornado — with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph — ripped through Cape Coral, but a warming wasn’t issued until five minutes after it struck. Daniel Noah, the warning coordination meteorologist in the Tampa National Weather Service office, said understaffing wasn’t an issue that day.

But the late alert points to how tricky it can be to predict a tornado in an advancing line of thunderstorms and why a full staff is critical during severe events.

Tampa meteorologists had watched two earlier violent storms fizzle before reaching shore in Clearwater and Venice. The Cape Coral twister mustered energy at the last minute, catching forecasters off-guard.

“It spun up very quickly, and that was not expected considering what we had just watched happen twice,” Noah said.

National Weather Service officials recognize more hiring is needed, although the agency’s vacancy numbers may not exactly match those of the union. In a statement, the service said there are five vacancies in Miami because of retirements and transfers.

“We continue to work through the hiring process to fill all operationally critical vacancies across the National Weather Service, and staffing shortages haven’t affected our ability to provide forecasts,” the statement read in part. “To assist in covering forecast shifts while we fill these vacancies, we have provided meteorologists on rotational assignment to Miami from other forecast offices.”

Sobien points out that means other offices could be shorted while forecasters new to the area must quickly master the rhythm of South Florida weather.

“Unfamiliarity with the area and its weather could cause a delay in getting a warning out,” Sobien said.

Issue raised before

Vacancy concerns aren’t new at the NWS.

In a May 2015 letter requesting the GAO staffing inquiry, congressmen from Illinois, Oregon and Virginia said the National Weather Service has, in part, attributed its staffing shortfalls to the inability of the Office of Workforce Management at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to get people hired.

As far back as 2013, the dearth of employees was noted as a concern. That’s when the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration published a 141-page review of the National Weather Service, assessing operations following a $4.5 billion push in the 1990s to modernize and reorganize the NWS.

The report notes that beginning in 2010, the NWS wasn’t hiring enough people to replace those leaving the agency.

“If this trend continues, the NWS is in danger of losing a significant segment of the workforce and will not be able to renew itself at a sustainable rate unless it revises staff functions and allocations across programs and offices,” the authors concluded.

Nearly three years later, in NOAA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, the group notes “significant challenges in performing critical oversight, guidance, and advisory services” in its Corporate Services office. The office includes Workforce Management, which does hiring for NOAA departments, including the National Weather Service.

“The high workload and deficient staffing and tools at NOAA have contributed to attrition in the HR workforce that is twice the rate of other agencies,” the budget justification says. “This has resulted in longer processing times, missing the 80-day hiring model goal, and a lack of continuity and consistency in service.”

During a severe weather event, a forecast office may double its normal staff to ensure timely alerts are made. That means calling in people who are off, or extending shifts past normal quitting time.

That’s what happened in the Miami weather office last week when towers of unstable warm air shot into the atmosphere along a line of thunderstorms slicing through the state. The brawny updrafts spawned three tornadoes early Sunday in Duette, Sarasota and Hobe Sound.

While the tornadoes were outside Miami’s forecast area, the storms still cut a 30-mile long path through Collier County with straight-line winds that reached speeds up to 90 mph. Multiple warnings were also issued in Palm Beach County.

Miami’s weather office oversees forecasts for Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier, Hendry and Glades counties.

“It’s not just the event itself,” said Robert Molleda, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Miami weather office. “As we are getting ready for an event, we are providing more and more information, and that requires more people as well.”

And after the storm, weather service office employees must investigate any damage done. Two Miami forecasters spent last Sunday surveying the Collier County damage.

Extra time takes toll

Joe Maloney, the National Weather Association Employees Organization steward for the Miami forecast office, said educational activities and training also suffer with fewer staff.

In a memo unrelated to this story, Molleda said the Miami office was unable to do any educational visits with media outlets last year “due to a significant staffing shortage.”

“Forecasters are professionals and they get the job done, but it’s taking a toll on them,” Maloney said. “They can’t get a week off. They can’t unplug.”

Maloney said the Miami office hasn’t been fully staffed in about 18 months, but hopes that several openings will be plugged by May.

“That’s if things go perfectly and assuming no one leaves between now and then,” he said.

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