Monday, February 20, 2012

In The Forecast For The NWS, Proposed Budget Cuts

Last year, the first significant rumblings of budget cuts for the National Weather Service were bantered about within the hallowed (or is that hollow) halls of Washington.  While those budget cuts did not occur, and in fact the National Weather Service received a slight uptick in allocation, the recent FY 2013 budget proposal from the White House is proposing a round of cuts to the National Weather Service totaling $39 million, or four percent of their roughly $900 million budget.

This was just eight months after the President warned how proposed budget cuts would harm the National Weather Service.

The effective impact of a $39 million hit to an organization's bottom line is the reduction of ninety-six positions, predominately positions that are known as ITO's (IT guys with a meteorology degree) who keep the local NWS offices running by running around and fixing those proverbial network issues that inevitably pop up from time to time.   They also forecast and provide meteorological analysis during times of "breaking weather" as staffing levels in the National Weather Service are such that the ITO provides an extra and needed set of eyes to cover in case there's severe weather.

NOAA Spokesperson Scott Smullen told CNBC.com that President Obama’s proposal is an administration-wide effort to find  IT efficiencies and savings across all federal agencies.   NOAA's plan is to “consolidate” 122 information technology officers who install software and maintain local computer systems at each of the 122 regional weather forecast offices around the country to a regional one in order to accomplish the funding cuts.  Essentially, you would have twenty-four guys doing the work of 122 now.

“Past investments have led to technological improvements, making our IT systems more efficient and enabling the National Weather Service to fulfill these responsibilities remotely,” said Smullen in a statement to CNBC. “NOAA does not believe this proposal will have an adverse impact on its mission to protect lives and property.”

Sure...and whenever you have a network or computing problem during a severe weather outbreak the last thing that's needed is to have one of your meteorologists sitting on the phone dealing with the IT "hotline" or "help desk" trying to figure out how to fix the issue.

In critical response areas, such as weather or emergency response, having sufficient staff in place is critical.  The last thing that any NWS office needs is to have one (or more) of their meteorologists sitting on the phone talking to an IT guy in some office that could be a couple of hundred miles away to deal with a network issue when they should be dealing with a severe weather outbreak or heavy rain event that's currently underway.

Dan Sobien, head of the Weather Service's employees union, makes a very valid point about connectivity issues that are going on at the NWS at present.

"We are an iPhone agency with an etch-a-sketch infrastructure. Download speeds at most weather forecast offices are no faster than they were a decade ago,” said Sobien. “In many offices, you have more available bandwidth on your cell phone than the office has."

Infrastructure is a major issue plaguing the collective of modern American society.  When most think of infrastructure, we look at the Schuylkill Expressway, Route 422, our less-than-stellar transit system in the Delaware Valley, and general gridlock.  However, it also extends to connectivity on the internet.  Having seen the connection speeds in a NWS office first hand, knowing that my 4G cell phone is faster as a mobile hotspot than the NWS' network is not exactly a warm thought.

Unfortunately, with $15 trillion in debt looming over Washington's head like a very sharp, pointed axe, the budget cuts swing for most of thee...but not for some of the mandatory spending buckets out there (see page 208 and on in the link).  In the ooze towards some shred of fiscal austerity in Washington, there are going to be more and more cuts proposed for more agencies.  That's the harsh reality.  Efficiency is needed, yes, but cutting the "glue guy" in your office to compensate for those cuts when your network is not much faster than the Geico ad guinea pigs is not there place to cut.  Having seen what my employer's IT guy does for nine offices over 500 square miles of Delaware Valley real estate one can appreciate the amount of work these guys do when you go offline and the network hits the crapper.

Could an organization that collectively is 0.02% of the entire budget and costs the relative equivalent of $3 per citizen over the course of the year probably stand to be level funded and not see any cuts?  Probably...and a small chunk of that $40 million that they get to keep should go, in some measure, to ensuring that their network speeds are faster than my T-Mobile 4G.   If somehow the budgetary wonks out there can work their magic and keep ITO's in the office AND somehow get a faster network out of each NWS office without their budget increasing one dime, I for one think that would be a win-win for all of us.