Forecasters nationwide are concerned about a House Resolution that seeks to reduce federal funding for the National Weather Service by nearly 30% in the second half of fiscal year 2011.
The National Weather Service Employees Organization said the cuts, if enacted, would lead to work furloughs and "rolling closures" of National Weather Service field offices in cities across the country.
"When the budget blade drops on the NWS, it will be felt around the country," NWSEO President Dan Sobien said in a news release. "In the next hurricane, flood, tornado or wildfire, lives will be lost, and people will ask what went wrong."
Speaking by phone with ABC 33/40 Monday, Sobien said discussions were still underway in Washington to keep the cuts from being enacted.
Forecasters in general acknowledge the crippling federal deficit. They understand the government needs to cut costs. But the concern is that an immediate 30% reduction for a 24/7 agency that often handles emergency situations simply goes too far.
Sobien pointed out that many services provided by the National Weather Service, such as aviation forecasts, help government and private industry alike save, or even make, money.
Locally, the NWS Birmingham Weather Forecast Office has been told to prepare for 28% budget cuts. The office is looking to save thousands of dollars in areas such as administrative costs, reducing electronics expenses, and even getting rid of some government vehicles, said Jim Stefkovich, the meteorologist in charge of the local office.
"Our job is to take whatever money is given to us and use it to the most effective and efficient way possible," Stefkovich said. "But obviously, we have a mission to protect lives and property, and we want to ensure that we have the adequate funding in order to do that."
Some meteorologists have said if temporary closures are ordered at NWS offices, other offices in other cities would then have to monitor weather conditions in the areas served by the closed office. The concern is that NWS forecasters in a city such as Atlanta may become responsible for issuing tornado warnings in relatively faraway places like Birmingham or Montgomery, where they may be unfamiliar with local weather patterns or terrain.
Stefkovich said there had been no such plans made at his office.
He also pointed out the vast majority of the local NWS budget is for labor. And if administrative costs cannot cover roughly 30% cuts, labor costs would most likely get cut in some manner.
Regarding the potential for "rolling closures," Stefkovich said, "If something of that nature took place, there would have to be detailed plans put in place to make sure that we would still provide a level of service to protect the public."
The hope is to be able to cut costs without cutting services.
"We're at work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Stefkovich said. "We provide support to agriculture, to aviation. We put out airport weather warnings, and we put out forecasts for the airline industry. We do climate data. We work with emergency managers."
Stefkovich and his counterparts at offices across the country are keeping watch on Washington, waiting to hear what level of cuts will be required.
"In a heartbeat, you can go from really nice weather to a tornado outbreak, so we want to be prepared for that and make sure that we have the funding and staffing to do that," Stefkovich said.