Winds of Change

Weather Service plan shifts work to quieter offices to free up staffs where storms hit.

Not just for conventional meteorology anymore: That's the National Weather Service's outlook for itself in 2015. In the estimation of an employee team that developed a new operating concept late last year, the Weather Service will become "the organization that makes the difference when it matters most" to government decision-makers and people in harm's way.

NWS is reworking itself to play a bigger role in events not caused by weather, but for which weather information is critical to support response-such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. The evolution from an inward-looking agency to one that sees itself as integral to a much larger enterprise will take almost a decade but promises some immediate benefits. "This is an idea to more effectively use the workforce," says NWS Director David L. Johnson.

There are identical weather offices in 122 locales across the country. They coordinate by telephone, e-mail and computer chats around-the-clock with 12 regional river forecast centers, nine national environmental prediction centers and 21 aviation weather service units, among others, to generate predictions in a range of formats. When severe weather hits, the local office works overtime to carry out its regular duties and the crisis response. If a storm knocks out one office, another one in the region takes over temporarily under a continuity of operations plan. That happened during Hurricane Katrina last year. Weather notices for the New Orleans area were issued from Mobile, Ala., for 22 days while the local office in suburban Slidell, La., was offline.

The system appears to work well; by all accounts, NWS performed superbly in Katrina and its aftermath. But according to the National Weather Service Corporate Board, which wrote the employee team's charter, the system is "fundamentally flawed" because it is not in step with the digital age, and increasing budgetary pressures exacerbate the problem.

Say a local office in the Midwest is in the path of tornado-spawning thunderstorms. "I would like to allow the entirety of that office to focus on the high-impact weather event that's approaching and shed some of the more routine workload to other offices that are less busy or not directly in the line of fire," says Johnson. The new design focuses resources on high-impact weather events and optimizes information technology to deliver routine services through deep collaboration. While it does not call for major structural changes, it will require a significant cultural shift from coordination to interdependence.

All NWS facilities will be organized into a dozen or more groups whose members generally share the same weather patterns, climatology and forecast responsibilities. Offices that can take advantage of nearby resources-university and government research centers, for example-to support others in the group could be eligible for additional people, equipment and funds. This "clustered peer" approach could make it possible for some local offices to operate less than 24/7 on occasion. The stated purpose is to allow time for training or to rest after a big event.

But the thought of letting any office close when it's not absolutely incapacitated makes the union representing 4,000 forecasters, technicians and support workers uneasy. "That would be the equivalent of them shutting down the fire station near your house to do training. You don't do that," says Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. He helped to develop the interdependent working model and says it's a good plan except for that.

Implementation is in the early stages. NWS will conduct several years of prototyping and field-testing activities before it decides whether to adopt the operating concept. Changes in the wind at the Weather Service are part of the evolving mission of its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There's an opportunity for our weather forecast offices to better tell the whole NOAA story," says Johnson.

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