WASHINGTON — The National Weather Service, feeling budget pressures, is cutting back on staffing and spending, a move that could compromise the nation's preparedness for severe weather, critics say.
Louis Uccellini, director of the NWS, instituted a mandatory spending freeze last week that applies to the hiring of management, and management travel and training.
"Due to our budget uncertainties, we need to keep spending levels to a minimum," said Uccellini's memo, which applies only to employees outside the bargaining unit.
Of greater concern to the NWS Employees Organization (NWSEO) is what it's calling an unofficial and unallowable freeze on NWS staff hiring — namely forecasters.
On March 13, the NWSEO filed a grievance alleging that the NWS has failed to fill at least 21 lead-forecaster vacancies.
"The failure to recruit and/or fill these 21 (and possibly other) vacancies is a continuing violation of the agreement negotiated between the parties . . . which establish five lead forecast positions at every Forecast office," notes the grievance, written by Dan Sobien, NWSEO president.
Two of the lead-forecaster vacancies are at the Weather Service's Forecast Office in Sterling, Va., which serves the Washington- Baltimore region.
Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokeswoman, said that interviews for the Sterling post will begin this week and stressed that there is no forecaster hiring freeze.
"Though the process is taking slightly longer than [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's] goal to hire within 80 days of the application deadline, the lead forecaster applications are actively being processed by NOAA's Workforce Management Office," Buchanan said. "We understand and share concerns that long-term vacancies are not in the best interest of the agency and its mission."
But Sobien said there are about 200 unfilled staff positions within the NWS.
"It's phenomenal," he said. "The vacancy rate, which was 3 percent just two years ago, is up to 9 percent."
For several years, the NWS has struggled with funding to pay for staff. Last year, it was embroiled in a "reprogramming" scandal in which it moved millions of dollars between accounts without congressional approval.
Recognizing the squeeze on the NWS budget in light of the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, wrote on March 5 to Rebecca Blank, acting commerce secretary, saying his committee "would be willing to consider a reprogamming on an expedited basis" to prevent negative impacts on forecasting.
The Commerce Department has warned that sequestration could be detrimental to NWS operations, but there has been no official word of mandatory furloughs or hiring freezes applicable to forecasters.
According to Sobien, one sequestration proposal floated by the NWS involves reducing the frequency and number of soundings, or weather balloons. The data from these soundings are important inputs for weather-prediction models.
The sounding reduction "would result in up to a 30 percent decrease in forecast accuracy," Sobien said. "The cost to the country [of the reduced forecast accuracy] would be exponentially higher and could cost lives."