National Weather Service wants to slash tech jobs by 80 percent

UPDATE: The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee rejected an 80 percent cut to the National Weather Service’s information technology jobs in a hearing Thursday, according to NWS Employees Organization.

“However, the committee indicated that it would favorably approve a request later this year for a pilot project made up of volunteer information technology officers to demonstrate a regional team approach to providing IT services to weather forecasting offices,” a union representative said.

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The National Weather Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wants to slash the number of information technology positions in its local forecast offices by 80 percent.

One information technology expert works in each of the 122 forecast offices nationwide to help keep computers running smoothly, and, during weather emergencies, make sure accurate and timely warnings go out to the public. They also write software programs to get new science implemented in operations, which helps free up forecasters to monitor the weather.

Feds query NWS vacancies as severe storms hit nation. 

Water vapor imagery.

But in a report to Congress tied to a 2017 budget request, NOAA says it only needs 24 technology specialists, who would work in regional offices to respond to calls from meteorologists in need of computer fixes.

The elimination of 98 IT jobs would save $10.1 million. The remaining 24 IT experts would be called the READI team.

“READI team configuration has the potential to increase support coverage to 100 percent reducing the likelihood of a service outage during a severe storm event,” the report notes.

Meteorologists aren’t so sure.

Stephen Konarik, vice steward of the National Weather Service Employees Organization in Miami, said in severe weather events, hands-on help can be critical in getting out warnings when computer problems flare-up.

Pedestrians try to keep dry in downtown West Palm Beach Wednesday morning, January 27, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Pedestrians try to keep dry in downtown West Palm Beach Wednesday morning, January 27, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Konarik said when they forecast a severe weather event, such as last week’s hail storms, the information technology expert works a flexible shift to make sure he or she is there in person for the bad weather.

“Without him in the office, that definitely puts a challenge to us when things go awry,” Konarik said. “When something happens, maybe there is a typo in the code, having him right there allows us to fix it immediately.”

NOAA has been working to trim its IT staff for five years, but has faced opposition each time from the employees organization. NOAA says it would try to reduce the number of jobs through attrition and putting staff into other open positions.

NOAA says IT reductions are possible because of a computer program it put in 16 years ago called Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which includes multiple graphics programs and software that make understanding and disseminating weather forecasts more efficient.

Now that  many of the bugs have been worked out of the system, it can be monitored and controlled remotely, according to NOAA, eliminating the need for an IT person at every local weather office.

“I think a lot of forecasters are really hesitant about a remote IT department,” Konarik said. “It’s so much easier to walk across the hall or look to our information technology officer and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on and help us deal with this thing that we aren’t trained on how to fix.’”

Dark skies, rough surf, wind and rain set the tone for the day shortly before dawn on Midtown Beach in Palm Beach Friday, January 22, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Dark skies, rough surf, wind and rain set the tone for the day shortly before dawn on Midtown Beach in Palm Beach Friday, January 22, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

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