National Weather Service:

Modernization Activities Affecting Northwestern Pennsylvania

AIMD-97-156: Published: Sep 26, 1997. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 1997.

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Joel C. Willemssen
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined how the National Weather Service (NWS) had implemented modernization and restructuring activities in northwestern Pennsylvania, focusing on identifying: (1) why the Erie, Pennsylvania, weather service office (WSO) was spun down prior to the Department of Commerce's October 1995 report on 32 areas of concern; (2) what types of services were provided to the counties served by the Erie office before and after office spin-down, as well as what public concerns have been raised, and how NWS responded to them; (3) what safety concerns have been raised to weather services at the Erie airport and to the timeliness of small-craft advisories for Lake Erie, including how NWS responded to public concerns about these issues; and (4) whether any reliable statistical or other evidence exists that addresses whether a degradation of service in the Erie area has occurred as a result of the modernization and office restructuring.

GAO noted that: (1) NWS started spinning down the Erie WSO by transferring warning responsibilities to the three assuming Weather Forecast Offices (WFO) in August 1994 before the Department of Commerce began its review of the 32 areas of concern in June 1995; (2) concerns about the Erie office closure, however, were made known as early as June 1994; (3) NWS continued with its plans to spin down the office because officials believed that they would be providing the best service to the area by relying on modernized radars in other offices; (4) the three WFOs that assumed responsibility for the counties formerly served by the Erie WSO provide generally the same types of services that the Erie office had provided, with the exception of the general public's local or toll-free telephone access to NWS personnel; (5) the major concerns surrounding the transfer of responsibilities relate to whether radar coverage over the counties formerly served by Erie would be adequate, and whether forecasts and warnings are at least equal in accuracy and timeliness to those previously issued by Erie; (6) NWS responses to such concerns include analyzing its ability to detect severe weather phenomena over northwestern Pennsylvania, as well as providing data on how well the assuming offices are issuing forecasts and warnings; (7) a few concerns also have been raised regarding NWS service to the Erie airport and the timeliness of small-craft advisories for Lake Erie; (8) the most commonly voiced concern regarded an automated surface observing system (ASOS) and requirements for air traffic controllers to augment it with human observations; (9) the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has sponsored a study of the impact of its augmentation responsibilities at airports such as Erie and will be issuing a report in the fall of 1997; (10) several studies present evidence that a degradation in service has not occurred in northwestern Pennsylvania; however, the ability to detect and predict lake-effect snow remains a concern; (11) NWS is completing a lake-effect snow study to determine the effectiveness of the modernized weather system in detecting and forecasting lake-effect snow; (12) the Director of NWS' Office of Meteorology told GAO that he will recommend a radar for the Erie area; and (13) however, NWS has not yet taken a position on the need for a radar, and the Secretary of Commerce is scheduled to make the final decision on any action to be taken in northwestern Pennsylvania.

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