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Meteorologists warn of dangers of budget cuts to National Weather Service

By Anthony R. Wood, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — Usually they post warnings of floods, tornados and assorted mayhem, but now government meteorologists are issuing warnings of another kind.

They say that the White House’s proposed cuts to the National Weather Service budget and the plans to implement them are dangerous.

‘We’re putting people’s lives at risk,” said David A. Solano, a hydrologist at the Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center in State College, which monitors flood threats in seven states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

At the center of the dispute is a proposal to remove the Information Technology Officers, or ITOs, who operate and maintain sophisticated equipment at 122 National Weather Service offices across the country, including the one in Mount Holly.

They would be replaced by 24 technicians assigned to as-yet-undetermined sites under the plan designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the Commerce Department division that oversees the weather service.

The union representing the forecasters, the National Weather Service Employees Organization, says the plan could slow the issuing of critical severe-weather warnings. “It’s definitely not a step in the right direction,” said Tony Gigi, the union steward in the Mount Holly office.

NOAA says it would not jeopardize safety and would save taxpayers $9.7 million. The union argues that $9.7 million is drizzle in a lake considering the Commerce Department’s $8 billion budget.

The union evidently has a powerful ally in U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who said last week it will be a cold day in March before Congress signs off on the cuts.

“These cuts will not stand,” Fattah, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, said last week after meeting with national union leaders in Philadelphia. He said that by the time the 2013 budget is enacted in the fall, he believed the weather service money “will be restored.”

In the meantime, NOAA is sticking by its proposal despite criticism. At a stormy meeting earlier this month to discuss the cuts, union leaders and Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA’s deputy administrator, traded insults before Sullivan abruptly ended the session. The union refused NOAA’s request not to go public with complaints.

Richard J. Hirn, the union’s general counsel, said the people who conceived the plan apparently didn’t understand the technicians’ roles.

“I think they think they stand by and fix what’s wrong,” said Hirn. “They are the most important people.” Gigi said they are “the bridge inspectors” of meteorology. The ITOs develop forecasting software and troubleshoot computer problems, and in some cases, can man forecast shifts.

Hirn said NOAA has provided no evidence that their work can be done from remote locations. NOAA spokesman Chris Vaccaro said Tuesday that weather service personnel were involved in the ITO plan.

He also said via email that “what will remain unchanged is the National Weather Service’s ability to protect lives and property.”

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