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NWS OPERATIONS

 

Telephone Services

The NWS needs to ensure that all offices have adequate telephone lines to provide proper service during severe weather and flood events. The availability of telephone communications became an issue at both the NCRFC and NWSO FGF during the 1997 flood. NWS forecast offices were unable to reach the NCRFC on more than one occasion. Telephone communications were very nearly lost at the FGF office due to the threat that the flood itself would inundate the local telephone switching center. At one point at FGF, one line was inoperative; and another line was very noisy. The success of the service backup at FGF depended, in part, on the continued telephone service at FGF so that callers received a recording with instructions to call the backup site. Several parties (e.g., the USACE) mentioned the effectiveness of cellular phones during the flood fight but also noted some problems of overuse and attendant call blocking; the NWSO FGF also used cellular telephones.

Finding 14: Telephone services for the NCRFC and for FGF were critical to these offices during the 1997 flood. The number of lines available at NCRFC was inadequate, and telephone service at FGF was very nearly lost. Recommendation 14A: The NWS regions should establish administrative procedures to assure that adequate phone services are available.
Recommendation 14B: The NWS should investigate the availability (and cost) of backup telephone services that might reroute calls around failed telephone switching systems.



Service Backup at Grand Forks Office

The transfer of service from and back to NWSO Eastern North Dakota appeared to go well from an external view. Within the agency, there was some minor confusion during the process regarding staff reassignments, but overall duties were performed very well. Transferred services were properly accomplished by the supporting NWS offices, especially NWSFO Bismarck. The fact that these offices only recently transferred aviation, public, and Hydrologic Service Area (HSA) responsibility to NWSO Eastern North Dakota contributed to this success.

The MIC at NWSO Eastern North Dakota attributes the success of the service backup, in part, to the gradual (i.e., one service area at a time) transfer of services from/to NWS offices; this should be considered in the event that service backup is needed in the future.

 

Impacts of the Flood on FGF

This event had a severe impact on the FGF office itself, both as regards the facility and as regards the staff. Positioning a sector facility technician at the FGF office was a great help in keeping the facility itself open and in avoiding damage to the facility during the time that service backup was initiated. About half of the staff had damage to their homes; one was a total loss. Yet, the staff continued to provide services to the public throughout the event. Policies on the use of leave by the staff in their personal recovery from the damage were liberalized, but the staff could have been supported in this area more quickly with a bit of foresight on the impact of the event of the staff. There are provisions for special assistance under the terms of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that could have been exercised to offer aid to the staff .

Finding 15: The NWS was well prepared for the impact of the flood event on the Eastern North Dakota NWSO facility but less prepared to offer aid to the NWS employees who were personally affected by the flood. Recommendation 15: In any future event that has a widespread personal impact on the staff of an NWS office, the appropriate NWS Director should be prepared to aid the staff by (1) using the Employee Assistance Program to provide on-site support and (2) providing liberal leave to the extent possible.

 

NWS Staffing to Support Emergency Operations Centers

The staff resources of the NWS are quickly overtaxed during a major widespread disaster such as was experienced in the Red River of the North during April 1997. Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) at Wahpeton, Grand Forks, and East Grand Forks were not staffed with NWS personnel during the Red River of the North flood. However, in discussions with the survey team, city and county emergency officials did not express a strong need to have NWS staff at the EOCs and felt they received adequate services via telephone, modem, and Internet communications. Certainly, computer communications make weather information available in a more user-friendly and timely manner than in the past; however, in-person service can extend beyond this and assist emergency managers in the decision-making process. Since EOC briefings often provide an opportunity for media contact, the lack of NWS representation also tends to reduce the media contact with the NWS. And local officials may have specific information of value to the NWS that will be conveyed more readily face-to-face. Impacts of overtime/compensatory time costs on NWS budget resources must also be considered.

The NWS needs to evaluate as an agency what level of staffing, if any, it can provide to city, county, and state EOCs, and what the needs of emergency managers are. Although NWS has limited staff to provide for EOC support on-site, there may be other creative approaches to temporarily provide increased EOC support for major flood events. The FEMA Reserves Program provides one model for this; for example, retired NWS staff could be temporarily hired to provide additional NWS staffing during major flood events.

Finding 16: A variety of opinions were expressed regarding the desirability of providing NWS staff support for city, county, and state Emergency Operations Centers. Recommendation 16: The NWS needs to evaluate, as an agency, what level of staffing support, if any, it can provide to city, county, and state Emergency Operations Centers and identify possible alternate methods to meet these needs.

 

Coordination with Local Officials

Coordination with local officials involves exchange of information in both directions -- provision of NWS forecasts and other data to local officials and the return of information from local officials on any local effects that might have an impact on river conditions and/or NWS forecasts. In general, this coordination activity was successful in both directions during this event. Nevertheless, there are a few issues regarding local coordination that deserve discussion. A great deal of interaction took place directly (by telephone) between the RFC hydrologists and city/county engineers and emergency services personnel in Wahpeton and Fargo, rather than via the forecast office in Grand Forks. Coordination with local officials in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks followed a different model, with the FGF office serving as an intermediary to the RFC. At times, city engineers and county emergency managers in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks had information and insight that might have facilitated the NWS flood forecasting effort but were so busy fighting the flood itself that this information was not relayed to the NWS. (The failure of the "plug" at the upstream end of Bygland Coulee discussed in the hydraulic analysis in Appendix B below is an example of potentially useful information that was not relayed to the NWS.) Considering the heavy work load at a river forecast center during a major flood and the pre-existing local contacts between NWS offices and the local officials in their service area, local forecast offices typically act as a primary path for the flow of information between local non-NWS entities and the NWS. However, the more direct contacts between the RFC and officials in Wahpeton and Fargo were effective in this event and are certainly acceptable practices within NWS policies.

 

Coordination with State Officials

The survey team reviewed the effectiveness of NWS coordination with state officials in North Dakota and in Minnesota. NWSFO Bismarck is the designated State Liaison Office for North Dakota. Ray Steiger, the Deputy Director of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Management (NDDEM), stated clearly that he would prefer to deal with only one NWS office, even when the event at hand involves more than one NWS office. This puts an extra emphasis on NWSFO Bismarck and NWSO Grand Forks to identify how Bismarck can best fulfill this role in providing service to NDDEM and other state agencies. Jim Franklin, Director of Minnesota Department of Emergency Management, also expressed a preference for a single point of contact but was not as strong in his statements and has been reaching out directly to the various NWS offices providing services to Minnesota.

 

Coordination with Federal Agencies

Real-time coordination among the Federal agencies supporting flood forecasting and flood- fighting activities in the Red River of the North floods of 1997 was exceptionally effective and was essential to the forecast process at NCRFC. The USGS was well aware of the potential for record flooding and had pre-positioned additional staff to take field observations of the event. These USGS field staff provided indispensable data to the NCRFC -- not only the observations themselves, but also telephone conversations that helped to convey unusual flow conditions. Likewise, the field engineers of the USACE provided useful data and were in direct contact with the NCRFC.

The NCRFC could not confirm that it had copies of all the hydrologic analyses and studies that might be useful to support forecast procedures for all parts of its area of responsibility. NCRFC did have FEMA flood insurance studies but was not confident that they were all complete or up to date. NCRFC does generally get USACE project reports for projects that are actually built but not for proposed projects that are not built (as was the case for the Grand Forks USACE rating curve noted in media reports and discussed above). As-built Federal project reports include permanent levee descriptions, but temporary levees and levee modifications and locations are often not known to the RFC. The survey team believes it would be helpful to conduct a post-event technical session on the forecasting situation and all related technical matters among Federal agencies including FEMA, USACE, USGS, and the NWS. This meeting should confirm, in part, that the RFC has up-to-date information from these agencies. See also Recommendation 1B above.

Finding 17: Other Federal agencies may have information in the form of flood studies, project investigations, etc., that could serve as reference materials to aid the NCRFC. Recommendation 17: Conduct a post-event technical session on the forecasting situation and all related technical matters among Federal agencies including the FEMA, USACE, USGS, and the NWS (see also recommendation 1B).

 

Coordination with Canadian Officials

Coordination with Canadian officials occurred primarily with Alf Warkentin of the Water Resource Branch of the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources who felt coordination went very well for this event (and in general).

Finding 18: Coordination with Canadian officials occurred primarily with the Water Resource Branch of the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources who felt coordination went very well for this event (and in general). Recommendation 18: To continue the effectiveness of coordination with Canada, appropriate Canadian officials should be invited to the technical sessions referred to in Recommendations 1B and 17.

 

Local Electronic Dissemination

NWS dissemination methods are diverse and are undergoing significant changes, and it was apparent that the Grand Forks' staff has made an excellent effort to modernize their local dissemination methods. Methods available to NWS customers in the NWSO FGF service area included not only standard, nationally-supported NWS systems (Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN), NOAA Weather Radio (NWR), etc.) but also effective local dissemination methods. NWSO FGF has implemented a hotline telephone, amateur radio links, a media telephone line, Internet, and a dial-in bulletin board service that emergency managers could use. At each news conference at NWSO FGF, the MIC described these sources to users. Some of these customers may still need help in making most effective use of these resources, but this can be dealt with effectively in the normal course of interactions between the FGF staff (primarily the WCM and the SH) in follow-up visits with NWS customers to ensure that they are able to access the information they need in the most efficient, possible way.

 

Handling Media Queries

The River Forecast Center HIC and the Grand Forks MIC did not have a clear agreement on how they would divide or refer media queries, at times creating frustration among themselves and their staffs over how to cope with media calls. Although MICs, HICs, WCMs, and SOOs receive media training in a managers' course at the NWS Training Center, Public Affairs officers in each NWS region need to work with the regions, river forecast centers, and local NWS field offices to develop more in-depth media training programs for field office managers and staff forecasters at WFOs and RFCs. The goals of the training should be to teach these staff members all of the necessary skills to efficiently and effectively respond to media queries in a severe event and to ensure that they get their key messages across in all interviews and public appearances as NWS spokespersons.

NWS field offices and river forecast centers should review their pre-season flood outreach practices and strive to contact editors at newspapers, television, and radio stations to identify key reporters who will most likely cover a potential flood event. If possible, the NWS offices should spend some time in workshops/briefings to educate reporters on NWS terminology and background and introduce them to key contacts within the NWS. Efforts should also be made to solicit feedback on clarity, quantity, and quality of information released by the NWS and use this information to improve and develop better communication tools and techniques for the future.

NWS headquarters should work with the regions to more clearly define the roles of the MIC, SH, and WCM in terms of who communicates flood-related information to the media during a major event. The WCM in Grand Forks did not have an active role in responding to flood-related media queries until after the flood struck the Grand Forks area, and the demands of the media increased significantly. Considering the increasing strain of coping with media queries during a major, protracted, flood event, using the WCM or other staff to coordinate responses to media queries and interview requests may be a practical method to balance the need to respond to media queries with other increased demands on the staff.

In short, there was no detailed media plan in place to help guide the MIC and HIC in effectively coping with and systematically responding to the large number of media queries on numerous subjects. In consultation with NWS headquarters Public Affairs, each NWS regional public affairs officer should coordinate "flood media plans" between NWS river forecast centers and forecast offices. Plans should identify responsibilities for responding to media queries, identify key local, regional, and national media contacts to receive all relevant NWS news releases, identify procedures for setting up a NWS media center, or procedures for providing NWS representation to a joint governmental media center, include copies of background information/fact sheets which can be used to quickly educate "out-of-town" and national/international reporters on unique local facts, outline a process for internally coordinating release of information, develop key messages/talking points for use by all involved NWS personnel and offices, and outline a decision tree for Public Affairs officers, MICs, and HICs to use in determining when they will likely need to have a regional Public Affairs officer or another NWS employee with media experience brought in to assist in managing media queries.

After the flooding around Grand Forks/East Grand Forks in mid-April, many news media reports focused on the controversy over the NWS outlooks and flood crest forecasts, rather than providing additional information about the ongoing flood event. Negative media reports surrounding the NWS forecasts for flood crests in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area had a significant impact on morale among personnel at both the Eastern North Dakota office and the North Central River Forecast Center. The NWS is accustomed to providing information on floods and other weather-related phenomenon to the media when the weather itself is the story. NWS field office staffs are less comfortable with dealings with the media when the NWS is the story. Media training and plans need to include dealing with those events when the focus of the story is the NWS itself.

Finding 19:The NCRFC HIC and the FGF MIC spent many hours providing interviews and other media responses, but they did not have a clear agreement on how they would manage media queries. While NWS Public Affairs Officers provided guidance and assistance during the flood event, there was no detailed media plan in place to help guide the MIC and HIC. Recommendation 19A: Public Affairs officers in each NWS region should coordinate "flood media plans" between NWS river forecast centers and forecast offices.
Recommendation 19B: Public Affairs officers in each NWS region should develop and conduct media training sessions for NWS field offices.

 

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