13News Now Investigates: Changes under the radar

13News Now Laura Geller has the story

WAKEFIELD, Va. (WVEC) -- Severe weather like hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes and snow storms are conditions we talk about a lot here. The National Weather Service plays a key role in warning us when and where we can expect life-threatening storms. We've uncovered a plan that could scale back hours at field offices across the country and right here in our area.

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

The National Weather Service gives us the watches and warnings. Our weather team uses the critical information you see in the red alert bar on the bottom of your screen to let you know dangerous conditions are here or 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.

That partnership is strongest with the field office in Wakefield. Some there are concerned a plan to close the office more often could jeopardize the partnerships. 

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 we visit, 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 us 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, we've 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

We 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 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.”

Of course, we 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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