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Remarks at National Weather Service Employees Organization Convention, Kansas City, Missouri

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thank you for inviting me to Kansas City for the National Weather Service Employees Organization annual convention. I’d like to specifically thank President Dan Sobien for welcoming me here. As soon as my team received this invitation, I made sure to reserve today on the calendar.

I’m here today because of how vital NOAA’s National Weather Service, its mission, and its people are to our country. As a native of Syracuse, NY, I can safely say that no one knows snow like I know snow, so I know how important weather forecasts can be.

Your daily work touches the lives of people all over this country and around the world. Every minute, every hour, and every day that can be added to an alert of extreme weather literally saves lives and property. For that reason, and many others, the Department of Commerce is proud to be home to NOAA and the National Weather Service.  

Extreme weather can have devastating effects on a local economy, as we’ve seen all too often in recent years. Just look at what happened during and after Sandy. Power outages and flooding in New York City, the destruction of beach front towns in New Jersey, and the crippling of public transportation all had measurable effects on the economies of those states.

But we know that the economic impact and loss of life would have been greater without the accurate forecasts you provided leading up to that historic storm. The ability of local, state, and federal entities to rely on the information you provided led to significantly faster recovery of important services to get the affected communities and economies humming again.

But it’s not just the big storms where your work has an impact on the commerce of this nation. Staff in my office recently connected the Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins corporate headquarters with a team from NOAA. As it turns out, Dunkin Donuts uses your weather information to plan their inventory.

Their franchises use weather data to predict how much coffee will be sold and their corporate headquarters was looking for even more of that information to better inform both day-to-day planning and where to close down stores in advance of an extreme event.

Each one of you is engaged in saving lives and property every year—and apparently, you are also involved in making sure millions of Americans get their morning coffee.

It isn’t just Dunkin Donuts. Hotel booking services reached out to us this year asking how to better access the data and the central guidance the National Weather Service produces to help them know where to expect a surge of last minute bookings from stranded travelers.

And we all know that major retailers like Home Depot, Walmart, and Target rely on data and information that you provide to the private weather enterprise to manage their inventory and quickly adjust their stock in stores around the country.

And of course, there are the two industries that—more than any others—rely on you and the services and products you provide: the agriculture industry and the airline industry.

These industries literally boom and bust on the back of your forecasts, preventing lost travel days and ruined crops. The work you have done to provide increasingly accurate and more sophisticated weather forecasts saves money for both of these industries, and the Department of Commerce is proud to help you help them.

Earlier this year, Secretary Pritzker released a five-year strategic plan for the Department of Commerce. The Secretary’s team—including my office—is focused on executing this plan, and I am pleased to say that the Weather Service is one of our priorities.

Now, you and I both know that the Weather Service hasn’t always been a part of the Department’s strategic plan. Too often in previous years at Commerce, NOAA’s work has stood apart from the priorities of the Office of the Secretary and the rest of the Department. Those days are in the past.

Secretary Pritzker and I both consider your work central to the Department’s mission. One of the reasons your work shows up so prominently in the Department’s Strategic Plan is because you have leaders who fight on a daily basis to make sure that you have the support and resources you need to deliver our shared weather mission.

Kathy Sullivan is the strong and impactful leader that NOAA deserves. And Louie Uccellini is among the top weather minds in the nation, if not the world. Louie and Laura Furgione are the right team at the right time to lead the Weather Service.  

But I don’t have to tell you that the Weather Service today faces real challenges that would test any leader. You need to know that Kathy, Louie, and Laura are your champions, making sure that the issues you face in the field and the centers receive the appropriate response from the Department.

I know this has not always been the case. But we are committed to giving NOAA and the Weather Service the attention they need and deserve for as long as Secretary Pritzker and I are leading this department. I don’t get out to our facilities around the country nearly as much as I would like, but I do hear about your work often from NOAA and your leadership team.

I know that, during the tornado that struck Moore, OK, last year, a team at the Norman forecast office had insured that the newly installed AWIPS 2 produced G.I.S. enabled products in real time, so that emergency response vehicles could make their way to the site of the tornado’s track before it even lifted off the ground. This is a stellar innovation and one that will save lives – made possible by NWSEO members in a local forecast office.

I know that NWSEO members in Tampa are working hand in hand with NOAA’s Ocean Service to release ecological forecasts – the first time a Weather Service office has released an ecological product. These forecasts of harmful algal blooms, including red tides, are important products for local communities and small businesses – like fishermen and beach front concession stands. Ecological forecasts of HABs keep people safe and allow local officials to narrowly target which areas must be temporarily closed to limit the economic impact of these phenomenon.

When the Forecast Office in Tampa began issuing the Ocean Services’ products, uptake of those products jumped 400% virtually overnight. It shows great innovation on an organizational level to use the deeply rooted dissemination capabilities of the Weather Service to release a product from another component of NOAA.

And I have heard that many of you in this room have worked on and are using a regionally developed method to automatically blend several model outputs to produce an accurate extended forecast that is consistent across your region.  

The forward thinking of NWSEO members and the success of those experiments led to a Sandy Supplemental funded “National Blend of Models” project. Informally it is known as “The Blender.” I understand NWSEO members are an integral part of the project team working on “The Blender” that will allow you to spend less time editing grids. This innovation may be a culture change for some of you, and the impacts of that change will be real, but the net effect will be overwhelmingly positive for how services are provided to the nation. These innovations are taking place in the face of the increased burdens that sequestration has placed on the entire federal workforce, including the Weather Service.

Let me say this: you are not alone in feeling the impact of the current fiscal and political environment on your work. Agencies across the federal government have asked employees to do more with less given stagnant federal budgets.

I want you to know that I am aware of the particular challenges you have faced. Chief among them is the current number of vacancies in the Weather Service. I know that Weather Service management has made filling vacant forecaster positions their top priority.

NOAA, along with many other federal agencies, instituted a hiring freeze during sequestration last year that extended for several months. Filling the vacancies created by that hiring freeze has not happened as fast as any of us would like, but it is happening.

As of last month, the Weather Service had 292 funded vacancies. The good news is that there are active recruitments underway for more than 75 percent of those vacancies. And, as you know, many hires within the Weather Service are internal hires. That means that for several months the number of vacancies may not drastically change as people within your ranks move from one position into another vacant position. But people are being hired, and the number of vacancies will continue to decrease.

I’ve talked about how much your forecasts matter. But I think each of you can likely point to experiences in the past when even the best forecasts just weren’t enough.  
When did a warning not reach all of the people that it needed to? When did your models not show you something that—in hindsight—perhaps they should have captured? All successful organizations must change and evolve to meet the demands of their time, and it is clear that the National Weather Service is no different.

The National Academies of Science, Congress, and multiple independent review teams have all reinforced the need for a Weather Service capable of change and innovation. But we need to set a higher standard. We must embrace change.

Communities need increased warning lead times on weather events like tornados and flash floods. State and federal emergency managers need more consistency across Weather Service boundaries. Users need impact-based decision support services and products that use social science as much as they use physical science to accurately communicate the forecast’s probabilities. The academic community needs us to speed up the process of moving new technologies from research to operations to better serve the entire weather enterprise. And decision makers—from South Dakota to South Africa—need increased forecast skill beyond 14 days. The Weather Service must evolve to better meet these demands.

Look, I understand the importance of trust and partnership between management and the union, and how hard that can be at times. Before I came to the Department of Commerce, I spent several years at Ford Motor Company during the worst time in the history of the auto industry.

One of the things that helped Ford weather that period was the trust and partnership that management had with the union. Ron Gettelfinger and Bob King were visionaries in leading the UAW—because they understood this fundamental fact: Ford was facing extinction, and the only way we were going to survive was if we worked together.

Together, we made big changes—not just with wage and contract concessions, but by incorporating creative thinking, and working with union members to change everything from job classification to the way the shop floor was run.

And we did it through an open and transparent process, one where we worked things out between us rather than litigating issues in public or running to the press.

The process worked at Ford because both sides acknowledged the challenges we faced. Without the UAW accepting the reality of the situation, I’m not sure Ford Motor Company would be here today.

We need to have an open and honest conversation about the realities facing the National Weather Service right now. I can tell you that NOAA and the Weather Service are committed to you, but building the type of trust it will take between NWSEO leadership and NWS leadership must be a two way street.

I know many of you are already working in teams with management, and I thank you for that, that work is already starting to show how powerful working together can be to arrive at positive change for the agency. But we need more. NWSEO needs to show the type of leadership that the UAW displayed during the auto crisis.

As NWSEO members, your agency needs you to lean into these changes. Embrace them energetically. You can be leaders in the field offices and the centers driving towards a Weather Service that is not only capable of change but leading change. And you can do this hand in hand with the Weather Service management team.

Here’s the truth: our budgets are not increasing. While some agencies and components of agencies have faced severe cuts, the Weather Service has, by and large, held steady. And if we all work together we can continue to hold your budget steady, getting small increases year to year to cover inflation or modest programmatic changes.

As you know, I used to work for the Senate Commerce Committee, and I have worked closely with Congress in my three years the Department. And I can tell you this: the days of relying on large budget increases are over.

Organizations that fail to see the need for change—that fail to evolve and to respond to the realities of the changing times—are doomed to fall behind and will constantly be playing catch up rather than leading.

We have to work together to look at new ways of accomplishing our mission. We need your insight and expertise to help us make the Weather Service a better place for both the people who work there and the people who rely on your work.

Weather Service management is committed to making the changes necessary to ensure you remain the world’s leader in weather prediction and forecasting. As NWSEO members, you must commit yourselves not only to your daily job – an important job – but to leading the changes your organization needs.

From communities like Moore, OK, to businesses like Walmart and Dunkin Donuts, our country is counting on you.

Thank you all for being here, for your commitment to improving the National Weather Service, and for working together each and every day.