Doug Ahlberg has worked in public safety in Nebraska for more than 30 years. He has little patience for decisions that put people in danger.
That's how he sees the plan to furlough meteorologists at National Weather Service offices due to federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
“It's stupid — you don't furlough these people, it's like furloughing cops or firefighters,” Ahlberg said. “Do you need them all the time? No. But when you need them, you need them.”
Ahlberg is director of emergency management for Lincoln-Lancaster County. Before that, he was a Lincoln police officer.
All National Weather Service employees would have to take four unpaid days off — probably in July and August — under a proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to deal with the sequester cuts.
The mandatory across-the-board spending reductions of the sequester affect all but a handful of government functions. Some agencies, including NOAA, can decide where to cut.
Weather service meteorologists are sounding the alarm in part because the sequester cuts would be condensed into two months this year and coincide with severe weather season and the onset of hurricane season.
“The timing of the furloughs is during severe weather season, which is the busiest time of year. ... Resources are already stretched thin,” said Cynthia Fay, the National Weather Service Employees Organization representative at the forecast office in Hastings, Neb.
When severe weather threatens, meteorologists come in on overtime. They can work long, frenetic shifts to keep track of quickly moving storms.
If furloughs plus severe weather increase the amount of overtime that meteorologists have to work, then the likelihood of fatigue-related error sets in, said Barbara Mayes, the employee representative at the Valley forecast office.
The Valley office forecasts for eastern Nebraska and southwestern Iowa, including Lincoln and the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.
“When you start to stretch people thin and ask them to do twice the weather work than they should be doing, you start to set up risks,” said Mayes, who is a meteorologist.
Tornadoes, large hail, heavy rains and flooding can all sweep into Nebraska in a single night. On overnight shifts with storms like these, meteorologists might work 13 hours straight without a break.
Because of past consolidations, a Nebraska weather service office might be tracking severe weather across 40 counties at once. Imagine radar images of multiple storms moving at 60 mph across hundreds of miles, and it's easy to picture how something could get missed.
A spokeswoman for the NOAA said the agency could call furloughed employees back in during severe weather, though union officials dispute how easily that could be done.
“A furlough day can be canceled in the event of severe weather or another emergency — an oil spill for example,” the spokeswoman said.
Dan Sobien, who heads the weather service employees union, said canceling a furlough is a bureaucratic process that could take days and doesn't give the National Weather Service the nimbleness it needs.
If an industrial accident caused a chlorine leak in Omaha in the middle of the night, he said, the NOAA could not un-furlough employees in time to get them to the office. That's because someone in the bureaucracy has to act before the employees could actually report.
So the agency would have to turn to other staff, people who might not be fresh and rested.
“Things just pop up quickly,'' he said, “and people need to make very fast decisions.”
Clayton said the agency has tried to avoid furloughs. Cuts have also been made in training, travel and staffing through a hiring freeze, she said.
“Furloughs are a last resort for NOAA to ensure we're in compliance,” she said. “We have taken other steps ... but they weren't enough to close the gap.”
Negotiations continue on how to accommodate the sequester's effects on the NOAA's $5 billion budget, Clayton said. The furloughs would provide about $17 million of the $256 million that the agency is required to cut due to the sequester and another mandated reduction.
Weather service offices in Hastings and North Platte, Neb., each are each down one person. Elsewhere in the country, staff shortages are more severe. The Omaha office is fully staffed.
“Our operating budget is very short,” said Cliff Cole, a meteorologist and union representative in the North Platte office.
The furloughs represent a 1.5 percent pay cut on top of two previous years without raises, he said.
Computer purchases also have been delayed. He said the office, at times, operates at an Internet bandwidth equivalent to the dial-up modems of the 1990s, with no money to purchase additional bandwidth.
“No overnight travel is allowed. No travel is allowed outside of western and north-central Nebraska,” Cole said. “No money is to be spent on outdoor venues such as a booth at the State Fair.”
Mayes, who forecasts for the Omaha area, said the lack of training is no small thing.
Meteorologists “risk falling behind the best and most current science because we are less able to teach it across the agency,” she said.
Sobien said there are wiser ways for the NOAA to cut, pointing to $600 million in research grants that have not been allocated.
Congress, frustrated with the NOAA, has told the agency on several occasions to cut somewhere and avoid furloughing National Weather Service employees. Last week U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who heads the subcommittee that oversees the NOAA, wrote of his continued displeasure.
“The severe weather events in Oklahoma ... underscore the life and safety mission that NWS employees perform,” he wrote to Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of commerce. “There should be no higher priority at the department than ensuring that these critical services are maintained.”
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