Skip Navigation Link  
NOAA logo - Click to go to the NOAA homepage National Weather Service   NWS logo - Click to go to the NWS homepage
Hydrology Laboratory
Local forecast by
"City, St"


This event pointed to several aspects of the NWS modernization of its weather services where the survey team felt the NWS was vulnerable, risking degradation of these services. These fall into three general areas: (1) the transition to a modernized state, (2) staffing--both during transition and after, and (3) several aspects of the NWS modernization and associated restructuring.


Two aspects of the transition to a modernized state clearly pose potential pitfalls for the NWS. First and foremost is the amount of off-site training that is required during the transition. Second is the increased length of the transition period resulting from budgetary constraints and the inability of the NWS and its contractors to deliver significantly improved technology to its field offices according to earlier projections.

The substantial requirement to train its work force often leaves field offices with staffing situations that threaten their ability to efficiently perform their prime mission. Such was the case in both NWSFOs and the RFC that were part of this survey. In each case, key personnel were away from the office attending in-residence training courses for all or a portion of the event. This, coupled with the fact the remaining staff at these offices included a notable number of new, inexperienced people, posed a high potential for unacceptable service due to staff overload during the disaster. This threat was averted in this event because of the extreme dedication and extra effort of the personnel at the offices involved during the disaster. Nevertheless, the risk is very real while the NWS undergoes a protracted transition period.

    FINDING 3-1: Key members of the staffs of both NWSFOs and the RFC were attending training away from their home offices during this event.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-1: Especially during transition, when we have extensive training requirements which are not a luxury, we must have adequate staff to cover operations.

In addition to staffing concerns, the survey team found several potentially vulnerable aspects of hardware configurations being implemented during the extended NWS transition period. While the five WSR-88Ds accepted by the Government in this area were operational throughout the event, use of the data from the radars was notably constrained. For instance, the SERFC had no way to directly input the WSR-88D precipitation estimates into its hydrologic models. Additionally, none of the spin-down WSOs with county warning responsibility had any access to WSR-88D data (other than what was verbally communicated secondhand or via text products). Due to staffing limitations, one NWSFO and the SERFC chose not to dedicate someone to monitor the WSR-88D throughout the event. Rather, they chose to make note of the WSR-88D data on an ad hoc basis. These factors alone could have (but did not in this case) severely limited the ability of the field offices to determine the magnitude of the event at the earliest possible time.

    FINDING 3-2: One NWSFO and the RFC affected by Alberto did not have sufficient human resources, and the other NWSFO did not have sufficient communications resources, to fully utilize data from the WSR-88Ds in the area. None of the WSOs with warning responsibilities had any access to WSR-88D data. In addition, the RFC was unable to process the precipitation data from the WSR-88Ds so they could be input to the hydrologic models.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-2: The NWS must recognize that during the transition it is not able to fully utilize the WSR-88D and should continue to take steps to accelerate other portions of the modernization and make maximum use of technology components which are mature enough to warrant deployment.

There is another area where the NWS seems to be very vulnerable during transition and into modernization: the amount of time available for the WCMs to coordinate with their present and future emergency management (and other action agency) officials. Due to operational shift workload requirements that result from staff shortages (because of training requirements), WCMs often do not have adequate time available to coordinate with their users. The survey team found this to be the case during its study.

    FINDING 3-3: The operational shift and training requirements, coupled with a large geographic area of responsibility, limited the opportunity for the WCMs to interact with local users. Consequently, the WCMs did not thoroughly coordinate with all the users in their CWA.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-3: The NWS needs to develop an efficient strategy to maximize the efficiency of the collective efforts of the WCMs and other staff members. A WCM team approach should be considered whereby other WFO (and occasionally RFC) staff members are designated as liaisons with the state and local agencies involved in such activities as emergency management, water resources, and public safety.

One aspect of current NWS operations, which becomes a greater problem during transition, is the flow of information from NWS field offices in one state to emergency managers in an adjoining state. Some local emergency managers with adequate funding and personnel resources subscribe to NWWS and receive hard copies of NWS products. However, due to the large number of products issued over NWWS by the NWS offices outside of their home states, they generally chose to receive only those products issued by NWS offices in their own states. For example, even though products were issued, the survey team found that the Houston County, Alabama, emergency managers lacked river forecast and warning information because they chose not to receive flood products issued by WSO Columbus (Georgia) and NWSFO Atlanta (Georgia) even though the products covered Houston County. Universal Generic Codes (UGC) enable users to be more selective in the products they receive. Flash Flood Warnings currently use the UGC codes, but River Statements (RVS), Flood Statements (FLS), and Flood Warnings (FLW) do not. UGC will be included in RVS, FLS, and FLW once they are produced by the AWIPS River Product Formatter.

    FINDING 3-4: At least one member of the emergency management community chose not to be burdened with the numerous products sent via NWWS for a neighboring state. As a result, critical forecasts and warnings for that county were not received. NWWS users want to efficiently receive weather information that pertains only to their jurisdictions.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-4: Users need the ability on NWWS to parse only those hydrologic products that apply to their areas of responsibility, e.g., a given county. The NWS should require the use of generic codes on all NWS public hydrologic products until AWIPS is implemented, and the WCMs should work with the users to insure that all necessary products are being received.


Attempts were made to supplement field office staffs during the disaster with personnel from other field offices. At the SERFC, an additional hydrologist was brought in from the West Gulf RFC. At WSO Pensacola (Florida), the previous MIC, who had transferred to WSO Mobile (Alabama), was called back to help out. While this approach may seem laudable, its practicality as a mainstay of staffing plans is questionable. To provide an effective supplement, personnel sent to offices during an emergency must be capable of providing specific hydrometeorological expertise for the geographic area of concern. The nature of the science of hydrology and, to a limited extent, the science of meteorology requires knowledge of the area. Without such knowledge, personnel sent during emergencies often are little help to the receiving office. In fact, time spent getting these individuals to a point where they can contribute to ongoing operations reduces the time available to the on-site staff to perform their jobs. As a result of this dilemma, field offices are often reluctant to accept off-site assistance. In addition, there seems to be an unspoken philosophy that accepting such assistance is a reflection on the competence of the office in question. The net result is that field offices tend to "make do" with the staff available during disasters. This often leads to field office staffs becoming overwhelmed in times of crises. There was some evidence that this occurred during the disaster caused by Alberto.

    FINDING 3-5: The NWS offices affected by Alberto were stressed to provide enough human resources during the disaster to continuously utilize all information the WSR-88Ds had to offer. It would have been virtually impossible for these offices to have provided the critical services they did if they were staffed with any less employees.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-5: The NWS should reassess its core-level staffing requirements (going from five lead forecasters and five journeyman forecasters down to four lead forecasters and four journeyman forecasters), especially for offices with multiple WSR-88Ds.


An area of vulnerability was the amount of time that Service Hydrologists (SH) have to develop, transfer, and maintain a high level of hydrologic expertise at current and future NWS offices. The survey team found that there are situations where the SHs were unable to adequately address some of the following duties: (1) hydrologic training of on-site and off-site personnel, (2) frequent and regular coordination visits to all county-level management in their present and future CWAs, (3) station information (i.e., E-19) data collection activities, (4) personal professional development (hydrologic and meteorological), and (5) frequent and regular visits to the RFC to keep current on RFC operations.

The size of the present and future hydrologic service areas and hydrologic program training and development responsibilities of each SH are so extensive that the SHs may not be able to fully address important hydrologic program management functions and services.

    FINDING 3-6: The SH workload at the offices surveyed was quite extensive and typical of any WFO. Despite the good effort put forth by the SHs, it was apparent that timely completion of important hydrology-related duties could not always be accomplished. This will be compounded in the future for SHs who support multiple hydrologic service areas.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-6: The NWS should reassess its staffing philosophy for field offices; each WFO should have a resident SH.

    FINDING 3-7: Staffing levels at the NWSFOs surveyed by the team, coupled with operational workloads and off-station training requirements, made it virtually impossible for a sufficient number of hydrologic training shifts to be made available for each forecaster to become totally competent in the station hydrology program.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-7: The NWS should reexamine WFO staffing levels and procedures for developing adequate on-station hydrologic training to avoid difficulties during critical hydrologic events. This should include an adequate number of nonoperational shifts for each meteorologist to be trained to handle hydrologic crises at all times. In addition, MICs should adhere to the guidance that SHs work no more than 20 percent of their time on forecast shifts.

The consolidation of WSFOs and WSOs into the future WFOs (currently 300+ offices down to 115+ offices) poses significant problems for the present-day and future WCMs. These problems include (1) the number of counties in their areas of responsibility, (2) the geographic size of the CWA, (3) the number of responsible county and local officials, (4) the geographic distance between them and the WFOs, and (5) that the CWA may include multiple states.

    FINDING 3-8: The personal contacts between the local EMA officials and WSO staffs contributed to their satisfaction with the NWS services. When these offices spin down, the responsibility switches to a single WCM.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-8: A WCM team approach should be considered with other WFO staff members (e.g., the SH) interacting with the customers.



New demands for information are placed on the NWS due to increasing and changing societal vulnerability to weather, growing awareness of this vulnerability, and technological advances, especially in computing and communications. These demands, and the changes brought about by the ongoing NWS restructuring, continue to impact and influence both the current operations and planning for future operations of the NWS.

In this event, as is typical in current NWS operations, at least a portion of the dissemination of forecasts and services was conducted over the telephone, one-on-one with users/customers. The primary methods of dissemination continue to be the NWWS and the NWR. Many customers place a high value on the personalized service provided by phone contact, and it contributes greatly to the perception of high-quality services provided by the NWS. One challenge of the modernized NWS will be to continue, and to increase, the level of service and customer satisfaction with that service while decreasing the number of individual contacts required.

    FINDING 3-9: One-on-one phone contacts between the NWS and all types of users are frequently associated with the user's satisfaction with the service provided by the NWS. However, the number of individual phone calls which can and should be made is limited. An additional drawback for the users who rely on phone contacts is that they have to verbally repeat, dictate, or retype (or some combination) the information in order for it to be shared.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-9: The NWS must be more sophisticated in its use of communication and dissemination technologies. For example, the NWS should take advantage of aspects of the Information Superhighway (e.g., Internet) to coordinate with the public and other Federal, state, and local agencies as much as possible. Through increased electronic dissemination of NWS products, the NWS staff's time is more effectively used by allowing direct communication with many more users/agencies. Additionally, users/agencies getting information directly from the NWS can then further distribute it automatically without having to repeat, dictate, or retype the information.

    Another approach is to integrate into routine NWS field operations a range of communications tools (e.g., satellite broadcast, packet radio, teleconferencing) in order to match the ever-increasing technical capabilities of the NWS' many customers.


Upon arrival in the disaster area, FEMA quickly established elaborate satellite television communications to continually broadcast important information to its personnel in the field, as well as FEMA officials in Washington, D.C. Included in the string of information were updates on current weather and flooding information.

    FINDING 3-10: Agencies, like FEMA, have made and continue to make great advances in their abilities to effectively communicate with their users; however, the NWS is not fully utilizing the recent advances in information technologies.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-10: NWS should create national capabilities that parallel the capabilities of FEMA for special emergency response and disaster relief operations. This should be coordinated by the regional or national NWS offices, as appropriate for the magnitude of the event. For example, the NWS should institutionalize the capability to provide support for satellite feeds coordinated by FEMA which are then made available to other Federal and state government agencies and locally on cable television.

A possible mechanism for such support would be one (or more) centrally located national media center(s) that would have access to equipment (e.g., a communications uplink; large-screen video monitors capable of depicting NEXRAD, AFOS, AWIPS data and products; etc.). In addition, personnel would be available to be rapidly deployed to NWS offices involved in major meteorological and/or hydrological events.

The NWS should also give more emphasis to development of all-hazard telecommunications capability for NWR. A FEMA representative was concerned about NWS' capability/staffing implications to handle FEMA information on "all-hazards" NWR. The essence of this issue is whether NWS has sufficient ability/staffing to support "all-hazards" operation of NWR since post-disaster information provided by FEMA is very high-volume traffic.

    FINDING 3-11: The limited ability of the NWS to interact with FEMA raised the concern that the NWS may not be able to synchronize with FEMA and effectively operate an "all hazards" NWR.

    RECOMMENDATION 3-11: The NWS must be careful not to commit to operating an "all-hazards" NWR without considering issues, such as staffing and length of the NWR program cycle.

Return to Table of Contents

Main Link Categories:
Home | NWS | OHD

US Department of Commerce
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Weather Service
Office of Hydrologic Development
1325 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Page Author: OHD webmaster
Page last modified: November 3, 2011
Privacy Policy
About Us
Career Opportunities