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National bill draws local attention

A national bill is drawing local concern from Pike County Emergency Management Director Jeanna Barnes.

The National Weather Service Improvement Act introduced by Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, on Tuesday, would require the National Weather Service to develop a plan to consolidate 122 weather forecast offices into six regional offices.

The National Weather Service’s 122 weather forecast offices have designated County Warning Areas assigned to each office. Barnes said pulling those forecast offices into regional offices responsible for covering several states instead of several counties would create larger warning areas and potentially cause issues with the way the warning alert system functions.

“The relationship between local emergency management agencies and the weather offices is extremely instrumental in our job of serving the public with disaster preparedness,” Barnes said. “Everything we do is weather related, so we rely heavily on those forecast offices. The forecast offices are responsible for coordinating preparedness activities between local agencies and the National Weather Services. among numerous other things. The local forecast office can determine which counties need to stay in or when they can be released from any type of watch they issue, and they also issue the warnings.”

The proposed legislation calls for a warning-coordinating meteorologist to be retained at the each weather forecast center, but Barnes said that is not going to be enough in the event of a serious weather situation or natural disaster.

“The public is who is going to lose in this,” Barnes said. “Out of a regional concept, a small county like Pike County is going to be lost in the pile. There is no way six regional offices could provide the relationship the local forecast offices have been able to provide. I personally know the people who work at the Birmingham office that serves our area. They know the area and they know the kind of threats we see historically. From a regional office you won’t get that because of the large area they’re going to have to cover.”

When severe weather, such as a tornado or a strong storm of any kind, hits an area leaving damage behind, the National Weather Service is responsible for dispatching a surveyor to estimate the damage caused and determine if a team needs to come in to do further work in the area. When a team is dispatched, Barnes said the primary goals were to pass along the information should a declaration be needed for federal help.

“It might be that afternoon or that next morning, but as soon as a team can get here they are,” Barnes said. “If we go to this regional concept, how long will it take to get a team here to determine my damage? If it’s a large outbreak of severe weather like we saw April 2011, we would have to wait for a team to come down and assess our damage prolonging the amount of time it would take to get a declaration if we needed one. That’s more time lost for people in need.”

Barnes said Senate Commerce Committee members have been quoted saying the bill would be “resource neutral,” meaning no jobs would be lost or created in the process, but she disagrees. National Weather Service Employee Organization President Dan Sobien has said the bill would likely mean the elimination of more than 1,000 meteorology related jobs, she said.

“In my experience, any time you’re trying to consolidate something you’re going to reduce the number of people,” Barnes said. “That’s always one of the long-term goals. You’re trying to reduce the number of people you employee on your staff. The one-one-one partnership where they look out for what’s going on in our area, it’s going to be lost eventually.”

The bill does not state how much money would be made, saved or lost, but Barnes said no amount of money should be worth the risk of losing a life when it could be prevented.

“It is a scary thought,” Barnes said. “I don’t see how they can say any dollar amount that could potentially be saved by doing this is worth an individual’s life that could be lost because of this process. In a major outbreak, there is no way a regional office could handle the magnitude of communication that is needed to get it to the local managers or to media outlets so we can get it out to the public, and that will hurts us.”

Barnes is encouraging those concerned to contact US Senators and voice their concerns.

“Any amount of help we can get, we’ll take it,” Barnes said.