Severe storms, flooding, tornadoes. North Texas and the rest of the southern U.S. have seen it all this spring, putting pressure on National Weather Service offices that were already stretched thin.
Bill Proenza, a former official with the National Weather Service, told NBC 5 Investigates that forecast offices across the country are so short staffed it could put the public at risk.
‘In my opinion, anytime we have less than our current staffing levels at our forecast offices around the nation, we’re taking a risk,” said Proenza.
NBC 5 Investigates has been investigating staffing levels at NWS offices since 2014. The investigation uncovered union documents showing as many as 500 vacant positions nationwide at National Weather Service offices.
Along with NBC 5’s team of Weather Experts, the National Weather Service plays a critical role in keeping people aware of potentially life-threatening changes in weather.
Proenza was in charge of almost 50 weather service offices in the southern United States until he retired in January. Often outspoken and sometimes at odds with top management over budget issues, Proenza said staff shortages now border on dangerous and need an immediate fix.
“There is nothing more important than the protection of life. I don’t think there would be a higher priority than that,” said Proenza.
Right now, the Fort Worth NWS office is short three meteorologists including two front-line forecasters.
“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 Jason Dunn, with the National Weather Service employees union.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold a hearing Thursday on S. 1573 which would require the weather service to start reporting the number of vacant jobs each year.
The NWS insists there’s no danger saying, “All critical positions on all shifts remain filled. The NWS has not, and will not, miss a beat when it comes to forecasting and providing the life-saving severe weather alerts that the public depends on.”
The agency said it’s working to speed up hiring efforts after budget cuts and a backlog in its Human Resources Department slowed the process.
They’ve also hired a consultant to conduct a major analysis of staffing.
The Government Accountability Office plans its own investigation of the staffing issues starting later this year.
Meanwhile, Proenza fears a repeat of April 2011 where more than 200 tornadoes occurred across the southeastern United States.
Proenza believes the southern forecast offices could not respond today as well as they did then and because the NWS wouldn’t have as many people to call on big weather days.
“We certainly would have less people to call in if we have three and four vacancies at some forecast offices,” said Proenza.
Proenza said the southern region used to average about 18-20 vacant jobs a year, but since 2011 he watched that number has grown to about 85 vacant jobs a year.
At the same time, as evidenced by the record rainfall in Texas this spring, there’s no shortage of severe weather.