NBC 5 Investigates: Staff Shortage Left NWS Scrambling To Cover Tornado Outbreak

Union Says Forecaster Vacancies Will Slow Damage Assessments

NBC5 Investigates has learned staffing shortages at the local Dallas-Fort Worth National Weather Service office left forecasters scrambling to cover Saturday’s tornado outbreak and could slow the process of completing damage surveys.

NWS officials insist all weather warnings were issued in a timely way. But the union that represents forecasters said forecasters covered the storms with the help of meteorologists who volunteered to come in from home and managers pulling extra duty.

The DFW NWS office currently has three vacant front line forecaster positions. And, the meteorologist who serves as the union representative for the DFW area office said Saturday’s storms highlight the urgent need to fill those jobs.

“This office needs to be fully staffed. We shouldn't have to be spending time trying to find people to cover shifts and do surveys after high impact weather,” said Jason Dunn, local National Weather Service Employees Organization representative.

“We serve more than eight million people, densely populated with lots of weather,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the shortage has left the local office with fewer crews to complete damage surveys local community leaders need as they seek disaster assistance.

For more than a year, NBC 5 Investigates has reported on hundreds of vacant jobs at NWS offices across the country. By the union’s count, there are currently more than 600 vacant positions nationwide, including hundreds of forecaster jobs in local offices responsible for issuing critical weather warnings.

In June, a former top weather service administrator, Bill Proenza, told NBC 5 Investigates the situation was reaching a point where lives could be put at risk.

“In my opinion any time we have less than our current staffing levels at our forecast offices around the nation we're taking a risk,” Proenza said.

For months the weather service has blamed the shortage on federally mandated budget cuts, and then on short staffing in the agency’s own human resources department.

Weather service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said weather service administrators are actively working to fill the vacant forecaster jobs in the Dallas-Fort Worth office.

“Our forecasters and management staff are prepared to cover severe weather outbreaks when needed to help the National Weather Service meet its important mission of protecting life and property,” Buchanan said.

But national union president Dan Sobien said the agency’s current staffing is pushing the limits of safety.

“Sadly, these NWS forecaster vacancies and the scrambled emergency staffing during severe weather events have become the norm nationwide. I doubt the American taxpayers would approve of the risks to their safety to save a few pennies a year,” Sobien said.

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