A storm is brewing within the National Weather Service.
For months, the weather service's labor union has been gearing up to fight potential changes in how the agency operates, such as cutting back operating hours of weather field offices like the one in Ruskin. The National Weather Service Employees Organization says it is worried that some ideas will compromise the quality of local forecasts and endanger communities when severe weather threatens.
"Every part of the country has their own weather characteristics and having the local forecasters there makes for better forecasts," said Dan Sobien, president of the employees organization and a meteorologist who has worked in the Ruskin office. "In my opinion, this is a life-risking activity they're doing,"
Weather service officials dispute the group's claims, insisting that some of the ideas are already off the table and others will make for more consistent forecasts and allow meteorologists to spend more time in the field.
One of the first thunderclaps in the controversy came earlier this year, when the union obtained a July PowerPoint briefing presented by National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini to Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews. The briefing describes an initiative called "Evolving the NWS," described as "a collaborative forecast process" based upon a "central, common starting point without local grid editing."
To understand what that means, it helps to know how the weather service operates now.
There are 122 weather field offices in the country — six of them in Florida — employing about 3,600 people. Nearly all the offices are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are responsible for forecasts in their area. They typically have about two dozen staffers.
In the current grid system, each office issues forecasts for its area and issues severe weather watches and warnings. The Ruskin office covers 15 counties across west central and southwest Florida. It also forecasts for coastal waters up to 60 nautical miles from shore.
Director Uccellini's presentation included slides that indicated all but about 40 of the weather field offices would move to normal business hours, and that only those 40 offices would issue severe weather watches and warnings. A map in one slide indicated that Miami and Tallahassee offices would issuing warnings for Florida and the field offices in Jacksonville, Melbourne, Key West and Ruskin would close at night.
This alarmed union officials who say local office staffers have knowledge about their region's meteorological forces and vulnerable areas that their counterparts in far-flung offices do not.
"The local forecasters know where the worst construction is, where the mobile homes are, what areas will flood," Sobien said.
The union also suspects the weather service aims to centralize the day-to-day forecasting process and take away the ability of local forecasters to have the "last touch" on forecasts before they're issued.
Not true, said weather service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan.
Buchanan said Uccellini's presentation included ideas, not firm proposals, and is already outdated. She said there are no plans to shift severe weather warnings away from local field offices, but the agency is testing new forecast modeling technology at the Weather Prediction Center in Maryland that would provide a "consistent" starting point for local forecasters to use.
"Then forecasters on the ground can tweak the model guidance based on their knowledge of the local geography, topography and how the atmosphere performs," Buchanan said. Local offices, she said, would still have the last touch on all forecasts.
The blended forecast model is one of seven strategies in the works to free up forecasters to work with emergency management officials, first responders and others in the community and keep them informed about local weather conditions, Buchanan said.
"The more we can stand shoulder to shoulder with them and get out into the field with them during events, the better decisions they can make," she said.
Another strategy is to cut operating hours at some offices, but no decisions have been made and no changes are imminent, Buchanan said. Some staffers may have to be shifted to other offices, but no jobs will be cut and no employees will be forced to move. She noted that the agency is understaffed.
The employee organization, in fact, has pushed the leaders of the National Weather Service to fill the gaps to no avail, all while the number of non-managerial employees has declined from 3,877 in Sept. 2010 to 3,430 in Jan. 2016, according to records kept by the organization.
Adding to the employees' concerns: Whether they will be protected from possible federal job cuts under the new Trump administration, which has pledged job freezes except in the case of military, public safety or public health jobs. They are circulating memos on capitol Hill arguing that the weather service qualifies under this criteria.
Union President Sobien is skeptical of the reassurances for current employees. If field offices close nightly, local forecasters would not have the last touch on forecasts in the evening and overnight. His group supports embedding staff in the field but not at the expense of quality.
"The accuracy and nimbleness will be gone because you're turning the folks in Ruskin into people reading a forecast created in Washington," he said.
Florida state climatologist David Zierden said he's concerned about the prospect of losing local forecaster knowledge during the evening and overnight hours, especially in Ruskin, where freeze warnings and watches are critical for strawberry, citrus and blueberry growers in the region.
"A lot of agriculture is impacted by these freezes and the ability to forecast them accurately and a high-resolution is vitally important," Zierden said.
The overnight hours are a busy time, with two meteorologists on duty working on the day's forecast package, said Dan Noah, warning coordination meteorologist in Ruskin. But Noah said he is keeping an open mind about changes that could free up forecaster time to deploy during storms, wildfires and big events like the upcoming College Football Championship in Tampa.
"I think it's good to explore ways to make the weather service more relevant, and to do that we need to change the way we do things," Noah said. "It's really neat to see people use your forecast to make informed decisions to protect people. That's everybody's goal. We just have to find a way to do it."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.