When severe storms and tornadoes strike, you count on meteorologists to warn you.
NBC 5 has a team of weather experts that are the first life of defense. They work closely with meteorologists with the National Weather Service for another set of eyes on the sky.
“They are making the actual decisions about when to issue a warning, “said NBC 5 Chief Meteorologist David Finfrock. “We’re all working toward the same goal, looking to keep viewers safe.”
But NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered union documents showing as many as 500 vacant positions nationwide at National Weather Service offices. This includes nearly 200 front-line meteorologist jobs at local forecast offices, and many of the cities affected by staffing shortages are in the central and southern regions — through the heart of tornado alley.
The new staffing information was collected by weather service meteorologists concerned that staff shortages could lead to mistakes this summer.
“I just hope something really bad doesn’t happen,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union that represents NWS forecasters.
Sobien’s group maintains that list, tracking vacant jobs within the agency.
The union said staff shortages have not caused the NWS to miss any critical storm warnings, but they worry about fatigue as forecasters are forced to cover extra shifts this summer.
“We're pretty lucky it hasn't happened yet, but it's just a matter of time. You can only stretch a rubber band so far before it breaks,” said Sobien.
The NWS is funded by Congress as part of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Until January, The NWS was under a 10-month-long hiring freeze triggered by budget cuts.
Right now, even the National Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., is short three forecasters responsible for forecasting long-range tornado threats.
“We’re basically staffed at the minimum level to cover shifts,” said Jeremy Grams, union representative at the Storm Prediction Center.
Grams said scheduling will be a challenge this summer when the center in Norman is at its busiest and that staff shortages are also making it harder for them to work on advances in forecasting.
“If we have a sickness, or anything that happens, we'll have to figure out a way to scramble to get that covered too,” said Grams.
The local weather service office that covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area is short two lower-level meteorologists. The Austin-San Antonio office is down four positions, which has forced them to bring in forecasters from other cities to help issue warnings.
“I think the worst could have happened if we didn't have that lead time,” said Brook Barnes, who survived the April 3, 2012, tornadoes.
She knows that having an early warning can make all the difference. In 2012, an early warning convinced Barnes to grab her son and seek shelter. She placed a bike helmet on her son’s head and the two hunkered down in a bathtub as a tornado ripped their roof off.
The weather service insists the current staffing situation is not a safety threat. Chris Vaccaro, the agency’s director of communications told NBC 5 Investigates, “It’s clear by the actual performance of our forecasters that they more than meet our mission. The NWS has not and will not skip a beat. All else is speculation.”
The NWS won’t confirm or deny the total number of vacant jobs on the union’s list but told NBC 5 Investigates it’s aggressively trying to hire at least 190 people right now including 43 forecasters to work in local weather service offices.
Texas Rep. Marc Veasy (D-Fort Worth) is on the committee that oversees the weather service and doesn’t think the currently staffing situation is acceptable.
“Oh no, this is a very unacceptable situation. I'm going to have my staff find out exactly what we can do to help speed the process up,” said Veasy.
Last summer a Department of Commerce report found “critical staff shortages” affected the weather service’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
The report said vacant jobs at East Coast offices and the National Hurricane Center could “make them vulnerable to failure during significant weather events.”
Now during a critical time of year, some wonder if fewer people watching the skies could increase the risk for people on the ground.
“It makes me really nervous because I really think that's what saved us was having that lead time,” said Barnes.