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National Weather Service Office in Fort Worth Understaffed This Storm Season

Weather service using degreed interns to help cover vacant positions

(Published Thursday, May 14, 2015)

When severe weather hits, you count on meteorologists to keep you informed of threats during storms such as flooding hail or tornadoes.

The NBC 5 Weather Experts are the first line of defense and they work closely with the National Weather Service for even more eyes on North Texas skies.

But an NBC 5 investigation found the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth is short staffed this storm season.

“We have people working very long shifts;  12, 14 even 16 hours a day. And that can wear a staff out pretty quickly,” said Jason Dunn, with the National Weather Service employees union.

They’re working longer shifts because the Fort Worth office has three vacant meteorologist positions, two of which are frontline forecaster jobs.

The shortage is part of a nationwide staffing problem across the weather service.

“The crunch is going to get worse because the weather service is not hiring at a rate sufficient to replace the retiring number of forecasters,” said Richard Hirn, and attorney for the union that represents National Weather Service forecasters.

Last spring, an NBC 5 investigation revealed the NWS had more than 500 vacant positions across the country after a hiring freeze brought on by federally mandated budget cuts.

The hiring freeze ended early last year.  But today the union said the situation is no better.

“There are fewer frontline employees, operational employees working today than there were when the hiring freeze ended,” said Hirn.

In a statement, National Weather Service spokesman, Chris Vaccaro, wrote, “Recent delays we have encountered are a result of constraints within NOAA's human resources division, and not related to budget.”

Vaccaro added, “…we're actively filling vacant positions throughout the organization as quickly as possible.” And, “The staffing resources and flexibilities of the Fort Worth office enable them to handle any scale of severe weather event that may occur in their county warning area.”

But in Fort Worth, the union’s concerned because one of the forecaster jobs has been vacant for almost a year.

“When it’s going on a year we really need to get these positions filled to meet the expectations that people have come to expect on us,” said Dunn.

Dunn said staffers right now are still able to keep up with issuing critical weather warnings, but in a crunch they may be forced to cut back on things like social media where they monitor storm reports and issue alerts.

Dunn worries if staffing shortages get much worse, they’ll have trouble keeping pace with an important chat room they operate communicating directly with storm spotters on the ground with media meteorologists.

NBC 5’s team of Weather Experts monitors the weather service chat site closely during severe storms and contributes information so everyone in North Texas shares the latest information.

“We get a lot of great information from our crews, but we get a lot of great information as well from the National Weather Service,” said NBC 5 Meteorologist Rick Mitchell.

So far, Mitchell said he hasn’t seen the NWS miss a beat.

Forecasters at the NWS Fort Worth office are trying to keep it that way, even as they worry about fatigue in the middle of this storm season.

“Where it gets frustrating is when we have periods of active severe weather and people are putting in very long hours, day after day,” said Dunn.

The weather service is actually using interns to help fill some vacant slots on certain shifts in the Fort Worth office. The interns do have college degrees in meteorology, but the union said they still lack experience forecasting weather in this part of the country and the office needs to be fully staffed with experienced people.

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