NWS Baseline Proficiency Standards and Testing

A letter to the NWS Employee's Organization President by Roger Edwards

NOTE: In the spring of 1999, Ramón Sierra, president of the NWS employees' union, sent a letter to NWS Director Jack Kelly opposing testing of employees' proficiency, and pledging to fight establishment of rigorous baseline proficiency standards for meteorologists in the NWS. [I will post a copy of Ramón's letter if I can obtain it again.] Seeing yet another attempt by my union to cover for the small minority of inept, scientifically illiterate forecasters in the NWS, I responded. The response is below. Over one year after I sent it, a copy of this letter was finally posted on the NWSEO web server, the only link being an obscure reference to "Edwards letter" buried near the bottom of a large, third-level page on their site. In fact, a supportive message, also sent by e-mail from Mark Rose at Nashville, was the first indication I had that NWSEO had posted the letter. And, as of late September, 2000, there still has been no top-level union response except for an acknowledgment of receipt.

Roger Edwards
NWSEO member
c/o SPC
1313 Halley Cir
Norman OK 73069

5 July 1999

Ramón Sierra
NWSEO President
1924 Tanglewood Dr
Brownsville TX 78521-3619


re: Letter to Kelly, 6 May 99

The NWSEO should not give the appearance of coddling meteorologists who cannot perform to the cutting edge of scientific forecasting, if its credibility is to be maintained as a progressive partner in the post-modernized meteorological era of the NWS. Your letter to Gen. Kelly, unfortunately, does exactly that -- it espouses effective regression or (at best) stagnance. Further, on another NWSEO website, I found the following:

Mr. John Vogel, BPS Project co-lead, has since clarified Gen. Kelly's intent regarding the implementation of these standards as not requiring certification exams, tests, or drills.

It seems Gen. Kelly and his staff have been successfully pressured by NWSEO to back off the proficiency testing proposal. This is wrong.

NWSEO hierarchy, after decades of heavy emphasis toward the collective concerns of non-meteorologists in its rank and file, should recognize the growing ranks of meteorologists in its membership -- many of whom are relatively young, with advanced degrees and/or otherwise well-trained and versed in scientific forecasting. Soon, gone will be the days of the newspaper-reading, web-surfing, purely paycheck-motivated forecaster issuing zones and warnings, who hasn't read an issue of Weather and Forecasting or Monthly Weather Review in years. [If you don't think they exist, unobtrusively visit several NWS offices unnanounced on a mid shift.]

I too have major concerns with some of Gen. Kelly's methods and ideas. Is "no surprise" forecasting realistic? Of course not, in a literal sense. It is no more than scientifically fallacious sound-bite material destined to backfire in NWS management's faces. By the nature of uncertainty in forecasting and chaos in the atmosphere, some events will inevitably go unforecast even with the use of the most advanced forecast techniques.

But on the other hand, there will be no place in the NWS for forecasters who cannot, for example, fundamentally concieve isentropic potential vorticity as it pertains to midlatitude cyclogenesis, the relevance of mid-tropospheric drying to tornadogenesis in landfalling tropical cyclones, or the (lack of) usefulness of conditional symmetric instability in predicting snowfall maxima in the elevated warm conveyor northwest of a surface low. Yet in my many visits to field offices the past 10 years -- both during official travel and as a storm chaser, I have met shockingly too many forecasters who couldn't even begin to discuss the latest scientific methods in forecasting -- and who were utterly unfamiliar with topics advanced in recent AMS journal papers. That has been good enough for the past several decades, and to get "acceptable" objective skill scores in daily forecast verification most of the time now; but for the more intricately challenging future of forecasting the exceptional and especially dangerous weather events? No!

Does the NWSEO care about this trend? Will it adapt by encouraging NWS management to work toward constant improving forecasters' scientific knowledge and skill, or shove its head in the sand while fighting for the protection of those who can't keep up and who will become increasingly incompetent as a result? Yes, we do a good job in the NWS; but why not always work to do better?

In this sweeping priority shift now underway, NWSEO hierarchy must realize that some current forecasters may not have the motivation or learning skills needed to keep up with the increasingly complex and theoretical nature of the physical understanding required to improve forecasting beyond its current state. Many more forecasters will be flushed into obsolescence without continuing education, training and evaluation of their scientific competency. [Is constant improvement not a worthy goal?]

The only way to judge knowledge gained from such education and training is a rigorous program of training and testing in the scientific concepts necessary for optimal forecast skill in the future NWS. In the interest of brevity, I'll hold discussion on the training program itself for another time.

Any testing program of merit is one in which some students do not pass. Otherwise, there is no benchmark for judging the effectiveness and rigor of the test. The purpose of any training program worth its expenditures is to turn out top-notch meteorologists; and face it: in the process, some simply won't make it. Not everyone with a pre-med degree can be a physician, and not everyone with a meteorology degree should be a weather forecaster.

I am actually concerned that Gen. Kelly's training and testing ideas are not tough enough. We are professionals responsible for protection of life and property; and we should be held to lofty standards of education, training, and certification (including licensing!) -- comparable in difficulty to those for similarly critical professions, such as physicians and engineers. But I see the NWSEO spending my dues fighting to water down attempts to go that direction -- to allow us to earn the credibility and respect granted those professions. [Even hairdressers must be professionally licensed; why not meteorologists?] This is not why I joined.

Yes, I acknowledge the potential for abuse and/or irrelevance in testing, which is why I propose:

I cannot find the last issue of Four Winds in which science in forecasting was even mentioned. As both a new NWSEO member and an atmospheric scientist, I find this apparent misplacement of NWSEO priorities quite disturbing, and a bad omen for the future performance of the NWS.

Thank you for your time and attention to my concerns.


Roger Edwards
NWSEO member at the
Storm Prediction Center

cc: Mike Vescio (local steward), Bob Ebaugh (regional steward)

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