Weather Forecasting:

Radar Availability Requirement Not Being Met

AIMD-95-132: Published: May 31, 1995. Publicly Released: May 31, 1995.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the joint acquisition of the Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) by the National Weather Service (NWS), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Air Force, focusing on: (1) changes in acquisition and deployment plans; (2) the feasibility and cost of purchasing additional radars; (3) the Air Force contribution to the national NEXRAD network; and (4) the availability of Air Force and NWS NEXRAD.

GAO found that: (1) the three agencies reduced their original deployment plan from 175 radars to 163 radars because of changes in agency requirements, funding limitations, and military base closures; (2) the National Research Council (NRC) is studying the adequacy of proposed NEXRAD coverage; (3) NWS and the Air Force plan to deploy their radars by the end of fiscal year (FY) 1996, but FAA plans to delay deploying five of its radars until at least FY 1997 because of budget constraints; (4) because the option for purchasing additional radars is unpriced and subject to negotiation, additional NEXRAD could cost three times more than units under contract; (5) NWS has unrestricted access to Air Force NEXRAD, which provide essential backup, primary, and supplemental radar coverage; (6) all three agencies signed an agreement to operate all NEXRAD to satisfy the integrated needs of all three agencies; (7) Air Force radar availability data, which may be unreliable and overstated, indicate that some of its radars are performing below the tri-agency system availability requirements; and (8) NWS does not calculate operational availability for each NEXRAD site and it does not know if sites are meeting availability requirements.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to not purchase additional radars to address any weaknesses in radar coverage that may result from the NRC study until assessing FAA plans for deploying the five radars scheduled for storage and NWS mission requirements for NEXRAD in these areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NWS agreed with this recommendation. Accordingly, NWS assessed FAA's plans for deploying the five radars scheduled for storage and determined that FAA did not have a requirement for two of the five radars. NWS will convert these two radars into four standalone units to fill three existing gaps in radar coverage that NRC and a subsequent internal assessment identified.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to ensure that any radars bought in response to NRC national radar coverage findings are cost-beneficial, given that their unit cost could be substantially higher than those already purchased.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NWS found a cost-effective solution to its additional radar needs by acting on another recommendation and purchasing radars that FAA had surplused. The cost of acquiring the FAA radars is only slightly higher than the cost of already-purchased radars after adjusting the previous cost for inflation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Air Force should direct the Air Force Director of Weather to improve the reliability of the Air Force NEXRAD availability data and to correct any shortfalls that these data show.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) agreed with this recommendation and the Air Force took several steps to improve the reliability of NEXRAD availability data and to correct any shortfalls indicated by these data. While these steps improved NEXRAD availability in the short run, they have been less effective in the long run. For the one year period ending July 31, 2000, the average monthly availability for all 21 Air Force NEXRADs in the continental United States was below the 96 percent availability standard. According to the NEXRAD Program Management Council, the primary reason for the decreased levels of service availability are delays in maintenance response during system outages.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to begin analyzing and monitoring system availability data on a site-specific basis for its operational NEXRAD and correct any shortfalls in system availability that this analysis shows.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NWS agreed with this recommendation and now routinely and automatically collects system availability data from each of its sites through its Engineering Management Reporting System (EMRS). According to NWS, availability data is used by the Office of Systems Operations to identify common failure causes and individual systems with unacceptable availability scores. NWS said that these analyses led to a number of changes being implemented to improve availability. Based on our review of EMRS availability data, 90 percent of NWS' 120 NEXRAD locations met or exceeded the availability standard during calendar year 1998.

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