While automatic federal budget cuts are likely to trigger furloughs at the National Weather Service, the forecast office in Albany, N.Y., is expecting no significant impact on its mission to alert the public to severe weather outbreaks.
The agency’s high-tech command center at the University at Albany covers Berkshire County and 18 other counties in upstate New York and western New England. In a telephone interview on Monday, Meteorologist-in-charge Raymond O’Keefe emphasized that "the mission will not be compromised."
O’Keefe said the office will "maintain vigilance" over Berkshire County, given its many outdoor events that attract large crowds at Tanglewood and other sites during the summer when hazardous storms are often on the horizon.
"We’re keenly aware of the outdoor activity in the Berkshires and we’ll keep an eye on that," he said.
Along with severe-weather watches, warnings and advisories, the Albany facility provides 24-hour real-time data, updated forecasts and an extensive database for the media and directly to the public online, including Facebook, and via NOAA Weather Radio. Private forecasters such as AccuWeather and the Weather Channel depend heavily on the government forecasters’ data.
In the Berkshires, the Albany office maintains automated observation stations at Pittsfield Municipal Airport and at Harriman and West Airport in North Adams, supplying minute-by-minute temperature, wind and precipitation data.
"No one here has gotten any official word on furloughs," said O’Keefe. "But there has been a general email indicating that it’s possible NOAA could impose furloughs between now and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year." NOAA is the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent of the National Weather Service.
Other federal agencies, notably the FAA, have been hit with staffing dislocations caused by the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. Congress acted quickly on Friday to eliminate furloughs that had been causing airline travel disruptions and loud protests from travelers, including Senate and House members who quickly departed Capitol Hill to begin a one-week vacation.
Noting that some of his 23 staffers are covered by the National Weather Service Employees Organization, O’Keefe said a 30-day advance warning is required before furloughs can begin. With his office fully staffed, the supervisor predicted that disruptions would be minimal if forecasters and support staff are required to take days off without pay, even during summer vacation season.
"It’s my firm belief that if severe weather is happening on a furlough day, warnings and notifications will go out to Berkshire County as usual," said O’Keefe.
The automatic budget cuts have required a hiring freeze at the National Weather Service nationwide, O’Keefe said. There’s also a travel freeze and supply costs are being tightly controlled.
"But essential services such as radar warnings are not impacted," he said. "We are cautious about how we spend the public’s money." The Albany office has a total budget between $2.3 million and $2.4 million a year.
The general counsel for the national employees union, Richard Hirn, put out a warning on Monday: "NOAA’s plans to furlough operational employees at the National Weather service as we enter the severe storm and hurricane season are unnecessary and place the public at great risk."
Congress is still trying to get a handle on what it costs to run the nation’s first line of defense against hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper and website, adding that the NWS has "struggled in recent years to find money to operate a nationwide network of forecasting offices while also adding new technology intended to improve predictions."
"That’s raised doubts about the reliability of a program that produces about 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings a year, aiding citizens who may be in the path of dangerous storms, farmers trying to protect crops and airlines planning their daily schedules," Roll Call stated in a Web posting on Monday.
The agency’s budget is "something of a mess," Roll Call reported.
The NWS is under an imminent deadline to present Congress with a timeline for delivering a realistic budget. Current annual spending at the agency totals $926 million, with two-thirds going to local forecast offices.
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