Report faults Weather Service training efforts

Employee training is high on the National Weather Service's list of ways to improve its forecasts but course selection suffers from insufficient oversight, congressional auditors have found.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office also criticized a budding plan to restructure forecast operations nationwide, saying it lacks metrics for evaluating demonstrations planned in 2007 and 2008.

NWS plans to improve forecasting services with $315 million worth of upgrades to its information systems and technologies in the next five years and by developing training to enhance the performance of its meteorologists. GAO concluded that the agency is positioning itself appropriately but said, "It is not clear that the Weather Service is consistently choosing the best training courses to improve its performance because the training selection process does not rigorously review the training justifications."

In 2006, 25 NWS program teams identified 139 training courses needed. The agency funded 79 of the courses at a cost of $7.35 million. According to GAO, program officials justified 131 courses by linking them to weather forecasting performance measures -- even though some involved training on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, spill prevention, leadership, systems security and equal employment opportunity or diversity.

"The training process did not validate or question that these courses would improve tornado warning lead times or hurricane warning accuracy," the auditors wrote in the report (GAO-06-792). Although the courses were important for other reasons, GAO said, the justification was overused, undermined the credibility of the course selection process, and made it difficult to determine whether enough money was dedicated to courses that actually would improve forecasting.

Difficulty in training and developing employees on a constrained budget is one reason NWS is evaluating changes to its structure and operations. The Weather Service is developing a prototype of a new operating concept that spreads responsibilities among a cluster of geographically adjacent offices with similar weather patterns.

The offices would share forecasting duties. In times of severe weather, the office closest to the action could hand off its routine work to others in the cluster in order to focus on the crisis.

In September, an employee team is scheduled to unveil the prototype and select several weather offices to conduct the demonstration. Results are due in 2009. The implications of the restructuring on staffing, budget and forecasting are not known so early in the process.

But GAO concluded that NWS also does not have detailed plans, timelines or measures for assessing the prototype itself. As a result, the auditors wrote, NWS risks not gathering the information it needs to make an informed decision in moving forward with a new office operational structure.

"This is not consistent with the last time NWS undertook a major change to its concept of operations -- during its modernization in the 1990s," the report said. "During that effort, the agency developed a detailed process for identifying impacts and ensuring there would be no degradation of service."

GAO recommended that NWS management require training officials to validate the accuracy of training justifications; establish key activities, timelines and measures for evaluating the "clustered peer" office structure prototype before it begins; and ensure that plans for evaluating the prototype address the impact of any changes on budget, staffing and services. In a response to the GAO assessment, Deputy Commerce Secretary David A. Sampson said the Weather Service is revising its training process to ensure limited training resources continue to target improvements in performance. He also said the evaluation mechanisms GAO wants, including obtaining customer feedback, are under development and will be included in the operating prototype.

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