Weather Service meteorologist issues warning: Staff shortage could endanger lives

Posted November 16, 2017 6:36 p.m. EST

— The National Weather Service bureau in Raleigh has been severely understaffed for months, and meteorologists in the Triangle say the situation could put people in jeopardy.

Senior Forecaster Brandon Locklear said the staffing is as low as it's been in his 19-year career. The Weather Service office on North Carolina State University's Centennial Campus is supposed to have 13 meteorologists on staff, but it has only eight. Agency administrators have been promising more help in Raleigh for a year, he said, but every shift has to be covered in the meantime.

"We have people that are working 21 straight days. We have people that are working 19 and 20 hours straight," Locklear said.

Tracking weather patterns and analyzing data is demanding, technical work, and severe weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and winter storms require more staff. Locklear said the Weather Service meteorologists can't afford to miss anything.

"I think we're cutting it very close. We're playing Russian roulette," he said.

WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said he and other forecasters depend on the Weather Service as the authority for the storm watches and warnings on which people's lives sometimes depend.

"This is one of the most important things the government does," Fishel said. "The problem is that they're so good at what they do that they pull off miracles all the time, and the more you pull off miracles, the more people come to expect it. I think that's probably the problem right now – are we going to wait till the miracle fails and then do something about it, or are we going to be proactive and do something about it now?"

Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said the agency had 286 vacancies nationwide as of last week and is in the process of hiring people to fill 248 of them. A general forecaster will start in Raleigh the week after Thanksgiving, she said.

"The National Weather Service is actively working to fill vacancies throughout the agency to the extent our appropriation allows," Buchanan said in an email to WRAL News. "We continue to provide the critical forecasts and warnings that the nation needs and expects."

Locklear said it's only a matter of time until the overtaxed staff in Raleigh makes a mistake.

"When you take a labor force and you just work them and they get burned out and exhausted, something's going to slip through the cracks," he said. "At what cost?"