National Weather Service Scrambles To Fill Vacancies Before Summer Extreme Weather Strikes

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Meteorologists, get your resumes ready. The National Weather Service is hiring, and many say it’s long overdue.

According to new numbers compiled by the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the service currently has a staggering 548 vacancies — that’s nearly 15 percent of its staff positions empty. Even more troubling, after this spring’s rash of deadly tornadoes and with hurricane season right around the corner, 396 of those unfilled spots are “emergency essential.”

In other words, there is a serious shortage of the people who have to go to work when the rest of us are scrambling to get home before severe weather strikes. These unstaffed position include meteorologists, hydrologists and technicians.

“Some of the vacancies have lasted more than a year,” Bill Hopkins, the union’s executive vice president, told Energy&Environment Daily. “These positions are labeled ‘Emergency Essential’ because they are critical to the agency’s lifesaving mission. … To have a long-standing vacancy is playing roulette with the weather.”

While there are vacant spots scattered across the country, especially large gaps in staffing have been found in the central and southern U.S., including the prime severe weather region nicknamed Tornado Alley.

Some of the most noteworthy vacancies include six spots at the National Hurricane Center, three meteorologists at the forecasting center in Sterling, Virginia, and three forecasters at the National Storm Prediction Center in charge of tracking tornadoes.

The current staff shortages are one of the lingering consequences of sequestration — federally mandated budget cuts that forced NWS to impose a 10 month hiring freeze. Congress funds NWS as part of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That hiring freeze, however, was lifted three months ago, but the key vacancies remain.

“We’re basically staffed at the minimum level to cover shifts,” Jeremy Grams, a union representative at the Storm Prediction Center told NBC 5 Dallas-Forth Worth, the local station which first obtained the vacancy data. “If we have a sickness, or anything that happens, we’ll have to figure out a way to scramble to get that covered.”

A report commissioned last year by the department of Commerce concluded that critical staff shortages render the National Hurricane Center and weather forecasting offices “vulnerable to failure during significant weather events.” The report said that vacancies had affected the weather services response to Superstorm Sandy.

NWS is currently attempting to hire for almost 200 of the vacant positions and none too soon with hurricane season just weeks away. Signs are also increasingly pointing to the formation of an El Niño in the next few months, possibly a very strong one, which is likely to extreme weather around the globe.

The latest National Climate Assessment, released last week, emphasized the increasing likelihood of extreme weather across the country. Heat waves and heavy downpours are on the rise, the report found, and sea level rise will make storms more destructive than ever.

At the report’s roll-out, President Obama made a special point to sit down with meteorologists from across the country to talk about climate change and to encourage them to help the American public connect the dots between weird weather and a warming planet.