Thune Proposes Modernization for the National Weather Service

“Reforming an agency and increasing accountability will always be a challenge, but increasing public access to quality forecasting can save lives.”

June 16, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) today introduced S. 1573, the National Weather Service Improvement Act. The bill modernizes the National Weather Service (NWS) in three critical areas: it reinvests some resources from the NWS's 122 local weather forecast offices to six regional centers, emphasizes improving clear communication of weather forecast warnings, and mandates disclosures following concerns about personnel contracting misconduct.

“Focusing the National Weather Service’s resources regionally would improve the public’s access to quality forecasting and reduce the danger of local staff being overwhelmed during severe weather outbreaks,” said Thune. “A study by the National Academies of Sciences touted the benefits of a regional approach and found that the Internet and other technologies have transformed the landscape of forecasting. These findings warrant the consideration of Congress, and it’s time to start this important discussion. Reforming an agency and increasing accountability will always be a challenge, but increasing public access to quality forecasting can save lives.”

Highlights of S. 1573, the National Weather Service Improvement Act:

    • Reinvesting resources in six regional centers – From the National Academies Committee on the Assessment of the National Weather Service’s Modernization Program report (pp. 41 – 42):

      “[R]apid technological changes—not the least of which is the expanding utility of the internet—allow for meteorologists to prepare forecasts for locations hundreds or thousands of miles away.”

      “The most important benefit from the regionalization of the public weather forecast task is to diminish the chances of the local staff being overwhelmed during severe weather outbreaks. The extra time at the local offices can be invested in the increasingly important role of coordinating and communicating impact weather decision support.”

      The legislation would enable NWS to reinvest the savings from such reforms into the following areas: expanding super-computing capacity, investing in research to improve weather forecasts, communication of weather forecasts to the public, expanding the use of ground based observations and improving radar coverage where necessary, particularly in high density populations centers with no radar coverage.
    • Improving forecast communication – Section 2(f) directs the NWS to add “warning coordination meteorologists” to NWS offices. This provision follows testimony at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing by a public safety official on April 22, 2015: “Right now, numerous opportunities exist to [issue weather alerts] given the proliferation of communication channels and media (…) All of this has helped important information get into the right hands, and the NWS and others are taking advantage of the opportunities they offer. But there’s more work to be done. We continue to see weather-related deaths because people and communities are caught unaware."

    • Mandating disclosures related to NOAA/NWS contracting – Following an investigation by the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General, media reports (Washington Post, 6/15/16), and a Commerce Committee inquiry, the legislation responds to concerns about employees abusing the contracting process to enrich themselves with lucrative post-retirement contracts. The bill requires the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency of which NWS is a component, to annually disclose information about full-time equivalent contractors and those who formerly worked at the agency as federal employees.


Click here for a copy of the bill.