As the cost and societal impacts of extreme weather, water, and climate events continue to rise across the United States, the National Weather Service (NWS) has adopted a strategic vision of a Weather-Ready Nation that aims to help all citizens be ready, responsive, and resilient to extreme weather, water, and climate events. To achieve this vision and to meet the NWS mission of saving lives and property and enhancing the national economy, the NWS must improve the accuracy and timeliness of forecasts and warnings, and must directly connect these forecasts and warnings to critical life- and property-saving decisions through the provision of impact-based decision support services (IDSS). While the NWS has been moving in this direction for years, the shift to delivering IDSS holistically requires an agency-wide transformation. This article discusses the elements driving the need for change at the NWS to build a Weather-Ready Nation; the foundational basis for IDSS; ongoing challenges to provide IDSS across federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels of government; the path toward evolving the NWS to deliver more effective IDSS; the importance of partnerships within the weather, water, and climate enterprise and with those responsible for public safety to achieve the Weather-Ready Nation vision; and initial supporting evidence and lessons learned from early efforts.
The vision of the NWS is to build a Weather-Ready Nation by connecting accurate and timely forecasts and warnings to decisions that save lives and protect property.
Over its near 150-year history, the National Weather Service (NWS) has steadily improved weather, water, and climate observations and predictions for the United States, protecting the public from weather, water, and climate events while promoting national security, reducing negative economic impacts, and increasing community resilience. The NWS mission of “providing weather, water, and climate observations, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy” was the subject of a chapter in the book Mission Mystique—Belief Systems in Public Agencies, which highlighted the unique dedication of NWS employees and their commitment to meet this mission on a 24 hours per day, 7 days per week basis (Goodsell 2011).
Today, the NWS is a science-based service organization with a mission that addresses a wide range of service areas and a multitude of atmospheric and hydrologic phenomena ranging from space weather to severe storms, tropical cyclones, winter storms, fire weather, flooding, marine/oceanic storm systems, and tsunamis. The NWS operates across a domain extending from the “sun to the sea” and across nearly half of the Northern Hemisphere from Guam and Alaska, through the continental United States, to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In bringing the observation and prediction capabilities to this broad range of natural phenomena, the NWS has become a critical component of the national security and emergency response framework for the United States (Stafford Act 1988). The NWS also has the unique role in the federal government for providing weather, water, and climate forecasts and warnings.
The NWS could not accomplish its mission without the important contributions of the entire weather, water, and climate enterprise. Other offices in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) work directly with the NWS to develop and transition new advancements into forecast operations, fly satellites to observe our planet, and monitor and predict the physical and natural systems of the world’s coasts and oceans. Academic institutions and other federal agencies provide scientific and technological innovations and complementary observations and forecast products. America’s growing weather, water, and climate industry also plays an increasingly important role, contributing observations, models, and new tools and technologies to the enterprise, while also providing tailored forecasts and services across a multitude of sectors to meet their specific needs.
Through this public–private partnership, the NWS stimulates economic growth in the enterprise while increasing the economic resilience of the nation. Food security, energy production, supply chains, water availability, ecosystem health, and transportation systems are just some of the sectors that benefit from weather, water, and climate predictions. Roughly 3%–4% of variability in the gross domestic product (GDP) has been tied to variability in weather (Lazo et al. 2011), highlighting the importance of weather forecasts provided by the entire enterprise to the national economy.
Physical and societal factors increasing the need for weather, water, and climate information.
Demand for weather, water, and climate services is increasing. The United States experiences a greater range and a larger number of extreme weather and water events than most, if not all, countries in the world. In an average year, the United States experiences 26,000 severe storms, 1,300 tornadoes, 12 Atlantic basin tropical storms, 5,000 floods, 69,000 fires, and dozens of heavy snowstorms and blizzards (Bell et al. 2017;National Centers for Environmental Information 2018a; National Interagency Fire Center 2017). In a study conducted between 2007 and 2012, four out of five Americans live in counties that have been declared weather-related disaster areas (Dutzik et al. 2013).
The NWS, in cooperation with the entire enterprise, has made great strides over the last century to significantly reduce deaths and injuries due to extreme events. However, there is still progress to be made. The number of extreme weather and climate events causing at least $1 billion in economic losses has increased roughly 400% since the 1980s, adjusted for inflation (National Centers for Environmental Information 2018b). An independent analysis of U.S. loss events by Munich Re also shows an upward trend for meteorological, hydrologic, and climatological events (Fig. 1a). Furthermore, an economic impact analysis presented at the 2017, 2018, and 2019 World Economic Summits in Davos, Switzerland, concluded that extreme weather events posed the highest risk to the global economy, factoring the impact and likelihood of these events (Fig. 1b).
These findings indicate that extreme weather, water, and climate events present a high and increasing risk to the people of the United States, likely due to several factors. The population is growing in areas prone to tropical storms, tornadoes, inland floods, wildfires, and droughts (Wilson and Fischetti 2010). Economically disadvantaged populations in these areas have a more difficult time preparing for, reacting to, and recovering from extreme events (Schultz and Elliott 2013; Deaton 2017). Aging infrastructure is less able to withstand the impact of extreme events (Melillo et al. 2014). Last, there is growing evidence that extreme weather, water, and climate events, such as heavy rainfall and droughts, are increasing in frequency and severity, while the impacts of coastal storms are also exacerbated by the impacts of rising sea levels related to our changing climate (Gleason et al. 2008; Sweet et al. 2018; U.S. Global Change Research Program 2018).
This confluence of societal and natural factors is creating a nation more vulnerable to extreme events with an increasing cost of recovery. While meteorologists and hydrologists are not able to influence many of the socioeconomic factors above, they can improve preparedness and responsiveness to extreme events through forecasts and warnings connected to a wide array of decisions, and in turn, reduce negative economic impacts and save lives (Department of Commerce 2018). In short, we can make the nation more weather ready.
Evolving the National Weather Service to build a Weather-Ready Nation.
While the nation’s vulnerability to extreme events is growing, the accuracy and precision of weather forecasts has continuously improved, providing better forecasts on decision-relevant time scales, in some cases a week or more in advance (Bauer et al. 2015). To address the increasing demand for weather, water, and climate information and to capitalize on improved forecasts and warnings, beginning in 2011 the NWS embarked toward a vision entitled “Building a Weather-Ready Nation (WRN),” to ensure communities across the nation are ready, responsive, and resilient to extreme weather, water, and climate events (NWS 2019). Accordingly, the NWS is working to connect forecasts and warnings to life- and property-saving decisions through what has been termed “impact-based decision support services (IDSS).” This paper discusses the need to evolve the NWS with an increased urgency, to go beyond delivering forecasts and warnings, and to connect NWS products and services with public safety decision-makers at all levels of government through IDSS, with the goal of making all communities across the United States weather ready.
THE URGENT NEED FOR CHANGE: AN INFLECTION POINT IN THE HISTORY OF THE NWS.
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a new weather “Signal Service” within the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the “benefit of commerce.” The Signal Service was transferred to the Agriculture Department as the National Weather Bureau in 1890 with the passage of the Organic Act, then to the Department of Commerce in 1940, and renamed the National Weather Service in 1970. The NWS has gone through several modernizations over its history, including the most recent, highly successful, transformative “modernization and associated restructuring (MAR)” that was planned in the 1980s, implemented through the 1990s, and officially completed in the early 2000s. The MAR fundamentally changed the NWS field office structure to ensure that rapid detection and timely forecasts and warnings are delivered to the public while providing greater interaction with local communities (Friday 1994).
The MAR delivered a national network of Doppler radars [known as Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD)], Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS), modern satellites, aircraft-based observations, and a growing array of ground-based lidar, lightning networks, global positioning system (GPS) moisture sensors, and mesonets across the country. Furthermore, as part of the restructuring effort, degreed meteorologists and hydrologists with advanced training in the use of new technologies staffed the new weather forecast offices (WFOs), river forecast centers (RFCs), center weather service units (CWSUs), and national service centers (National Research Council 2012a).
With the creation of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), the Environmental Modeling Center (EMC), NCEP Central Operations (NCO), and national forecast centers were formally established within one coherent operational structure (McPherson 1994). A centerpiece of the MAR was the introduction of the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) and its NCEP counterpart, known as NAWIPS, which brought the wide array of observations and model data to the fingertips of NWS forecasters to rapidly extract the necessary information to produce forecasts and warnings across the entire United States and surrounding territories (desJardins et al. 1997). Today, NWS operates national centers for hurricanes, tsunamis, climate, severe storms, marine weather, aviation weather, space weather, inland water, and general analysis and forecast products.
National Academy reviews have concluded that the NWS MAR was a remarkable success (National Research Council 2012a,b; National Academy of Public Administration 2013). One visible measure of success is the ability to extend the lead times and improve the accuracy of tornado and flash flood warnings across the country, and to improve flight safety near and around developing convective systems. The lead time for most major tornadoes [enhanced Fujita (EF) scale EF3–EF5] and flash flood warnings now routinely exceed 10 and 40 min, respectively. At the same time, the model suite within the NWS has vastly improved through higher-resolution models, improved coupling across the atmosphere, ocean, land, and cryosphere, better data assimilation of remotely sensed and in situ observations, and multimodel ensemble forecast systems that span short-range mesoscale predictions through longer-range weather forecasts to subseasonal to seasonal forecasts.
The question facing us today is as follows: Does improving forecast and warning capabilities noted above yield the envisioned outcome, a nation more responsive to impending storms, resulting in improved community preparedness, fewer deaths, and faster recovery from extreme weather, water, and climate events?
The tragic 2011 severe weather season provided an answer. On 25–28 April 2011, a major tornado outbreak ripped across the southeastern United States. Outlooks noting the potential of an outbreak were correctly forecast 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 days in advance. Tornado watches were issued hours in advance and tornado warnings were issued (on average) over 20 min in advance with 95% accuracy. Table 1 compares this case with the well-known 3–4 April 1974 outbreak, which was similar in terms of the number of tornadoes, the total track length, and time (NOAA 1974). In the 1974 outbreak, forecasts for the potential for severe weather were made only the night before, watches were issued late morning the day of the outbreak based on 1200 UTC radiosonde observations, and tornado warnings were issued after tornadoes were spotted.
Despite vastly improved forecasts and warnings enabled by new science, technology, and forecasting techniques, nearly the same number of deaths occurred during the 2011 outbreak as compared with the 1974 outbreak (Table 1). This outcome had a profound impact on the NWS and throughout the enterprise, and suggested there was still progress to be made to improve preparation and response to impending extreme weather events.
The April 2011 tornado outbreak and the subsequent May 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado outbreak that caused 158 fatalities led to a “vital conversation” on 13–15 December 2011, held in Norman, Oklahoma (Moore et al. 2012). The 3-day review involved over 175 physical and social scientists, federal and private sector meteorologists, communication experts, members of the news media, first responders, emergency managers, and other decision-makers with the goal of identifying and prioritizing actions to improve the nation’s resiliency against severe weather. The results of the meeting generated the following recommendations for the NWS:
Assess and update NWS’s outlook, watch, and warning dissemination strategy.
Focus forecast and warning communications on the “last mile,” the messaging and delivery of warnings to decision-makers and the public, to ensure proper action is taken ahead of, and during, severe weather outbreaks.
Integrate social and physical sciences to ensure the “message delivered equals the message received,” and to encourage proper action to save lives.
Improve connections to decision-makers responsible for public safety, pointing to the need to develop stronger relationships, provide education/outreach, and continually prepare and practice before an event.
What became clear to participants was that the meteorological community was still not fully connecting forecasts and warnings to decisions made by the wide range of decision-makers, especially public safety officials, who play a pivotal role in mitigating the loss of life and property related to extreme events. The implication was that success cannot be measured merely by the accuracy of the forecast, but also by the usefulness of the information provided to partners, customers, and the general public as communities across the country make life- and property-saving decisions, as later noted by Palmer and Richardson (2014). These findings extend not only to severe weather, but to other meteorological and hydrological hazards as well, and offered a stark reminder to Allan Murphy’s statement published in 1993: “First it should be understood that forecasts possess no intrinsic value. They acquire value through their ability to influence the decisions made by users of the forecasts” (Murphy 1993).
The future was made clear for the NWS. We must work to better connect our forecasts and warnings to public safety officials at all levels of government and the media to reduce the negative impacts of extreme weather. While components of the NWS have been moving in this direction for years (Wernly and Uccellini 2000), the agency must evolve to address this strategic endeavor holistically throughout the NWS. This paradigm shift will require changes to NWS’s systems, processes, operations, workforce, and culture, and include 1) transforming the way people receive, understand, and act on information in part through effective IDSS delivered to core partners in public safety and national security; 2) accelerating the operationalization of advances in observations, science, and technology; and 3) evolving the NWS to align operations, systems, and processes to the new paradigm, including through leveraging new and expanding partnerships with America’s weather, water, and climate industry; academia; and other members of the enterprise. These changes have been built into an updated NWS strategic plan for 2019-22, which helps guide the NWS toward the vision of a Weather-Ready Nation (NWS 2019).
BUILDING A WEATHER-READY NATION THROUGH IMPACT-BASED DECISION SUPPORT SERVICES.
Connecting observations and forecasts to decision-making through impact-based decision support services.
Building a WRN is rooted in the goal that every community becomes “ready and responsive” as an extreme weather or water event approaches, taking the proper steps to prepare for—and react to—the event, saving lives, mitigating property loss, and being positioned for a quick recovery: the basis for community resiliency. To do this, NWS must deliver accurate, actionable, and consistent preparedness information, forecasts, and warnings mapped to key decision points in the emergency management, water resource management, and public safety communities through the provision of IDSS. IDSS is defined as “the provision of relevant information and interpretative services that enable partners to prepare for and respond to extreme weather, water, and climate events for the protection of lives and livelihoods.”
The importance of ensuring forecasts and warnings are understood and connected to decision processes was highlighted in reviews by the National Research Council (2012b) and the National Academy of Public Administration (2013), numerous internal NWS assessments, and a congressionally directed operations and workforce analysis by McKinsey and Company in 2015/16 (NWS 2017b). In addition, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (2017, sections 405–410) authorizes NWS to “increase IDSS” to “state, local, and tribal emergency management agencies, and other agencies related to disaster management, to ensure a planned, coordinated, and effective preparedness and response effort.” These reviews, and the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act and its 2019 reauthorization, validate the need for the NWS to better connect forecasts to key decision-makers at all levels of government before, during, and after extreme weather, water, and climate events.
IDSS begins well before an event through repeated in-person interactions, including tabletop exercises with core partners. Pre-event IDSS activities include developing an appreciation of the capabilities and responsibilities each party brings to the table, developing a shared awareness of decision thresholds established by core partners that address their public safety requirements, and a joint commitment to repeatedly practice real-world scenarios from hurricanes to fires to hazardous chemical spills. Many NWS offices hold Integrated Warning Team (IWT) meetings to conduct this critical pre-event partner engagement. These activities build trusted relationships that form the basis for successful IDSS.
IDSS provided during an event is rooted in the trusted relationships built before the event. Continuous situational awareness and two-way communication are critical. As the forecast is refined or as our partners’ needs change, the IDSS delivered by the NWS is adjusted accordingly. Successful IDSS requires forecasters with knowledge of local weather patterns, analogs, terrain, and impacts. IDSS may be delivered through a variety of mechanisms, including remotely through phone/video calls, webinars, social networking applications, or in person through on-site support within emergency operations centers (EOCs). Embedding NWS forecasters, who have been invited into EOCs at all levels of government, has become a core component of NWS IDSS delivery. The deployment of NWS employees to provide IDSS builds on the successful incident meteorologist (IMET) program, which for 100 years has provided on-site forecasts and decision support to command staff at wildfires and other incidents (Heffernan et al. 2013). NWS forecasters are embedded in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Command Center and in the FAA’s 22 air route traffic control centers, and in Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) headquarters (HQ). NWS employees now deploy to provide IDSS to FEMA regions, Department of Homeland Security HQ, and state, county, and local EOCs. Emergency management also embeds personnel in NWS national centers, and occasionally local forecast offices. These actions have gone a long way to build the cross-government relationships and trust required for effective IDSS and improved decision-making. After a hazardous weather, water, or climate event, NWS supports recovery efforts and increasingly assists city, community, and disaster planners as they update decision timelines and plans to improve their response and resilience to future events.
Challenges facing the meteorological community to provide effective impact-based decision support.
The fundamental shift in the role of the operational forecaster from issuing forecasts to issuing and connecting those forecasts to decisions is being embraced across the NWS. Nevertheless, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. One of the largest challenges is the recognition that forecasts, warnings, and other informational products have been based almost entirely on physical science principles. Forecasts will occasionally take into account some societal factors (e.g., extending a warning’s timing to cover when schools are releasing students), but often do not directly account for human factors related to decision-making prior to, and during, life-threatening extreme events.
As discussed by Morss et al. (2017), addressing these human factors will require new tools and techniques, as well as products and services based on social and behavioral sciences. A 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report emphasizes that it will take a greater focus on research in the social, behavioral, decision, and communication sciences, expanding institutional capacities for the social sciences within organizations, interdisciplinary studies and research connecting the physical and social sciences, and more innovative public–private partnerships across the entire enterprise to improve effective response (NASEM 2018a). Another NASEM study suggested that emergency alert systems such as the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system and Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) will need to evolve to include new delivery mechanisms like social media as communication channels evolve, all informed by social and behavioral science research (NASEM 2018b).
These challenges are further complicated by the spectrum of decision-makers that exist, from government agencies to loosely coupled organizations to individuals (Wittel 2014). While some decision-makers take action based on official guidance (e.g., government agencies), other decision-makers may rely on a wider array of information including media outlets, social media, direct access to weather information, or personal contacts. To further complicate matters, in our largely decentralized democracy, the authorities, operations, and capabilities of the emergency management function vary from state to state, county to county, and even municipality to municipality. In one county, a police/fire chief or county judge may be responsible for the emergency management function. Or, there could be a dedicated emergency manager position that holds that authority. The function could also be decentralized to smaller municipalities, towns, or villages. In some rural towns, the emergency management function could be a portion of one’s job. In these areas, the role of the NWS is even more important as these officials depend heavily on the NWS to forecast and communicate potential impacts to their communities in the face of impending extreme events.
Another challenge is understanding shifting risk preferences before, during, and after an event (Morss et al. 2017). A decision-maker’s willingness to accept risk is influenced by their knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, and experiences (e.g., with similar previous extreme events) (NASEM 2018a). As an extreme event approaches, their cognitive risk perceptions and emotions change, which affects their decision-making and adds yet another layer of complexity to link predictions with decision-makers (Demuth and Morss 2018).
Finally, societal factors are pushing decision timelines further in advance, which are generating challenges with providing effective IDSS. For instance, as the population increases along the coast, communities are becoming more vulnerable to land-falling hurricanes and related coastal threats given the increased time it takes to prepare for, and execute, local evacuations. Forecasts are more uncertain at longer lead times, even though they have dramatically improved over the last several decades (Bauer et al. 2015; Alley et al. 2019). Whether it is pre-positioning fast water rescue teams during the 2015/16 floods in the southeastern United States, utility repair crews from across the eastern United States during blizzards in 2016 and 2018, wildfire-fighting equipment during the 2017/18 wildfire seasons in the Midwest and western United States, or managing reservoirs through droughts in the western and southern United States in 2012 and 2015, decision-makers must use best available predictions as a basis for their decisions sometimes a week before a possible extreme weather event or months ahead of a seasonal climate event. Meteorologists and hydrologists must also accurately communicate the related uncertainty and confidence of these long-lead-time forecasts, which are increasingly based on ensemble model forecasts (Palmer 2017), mapped to the needs of the audience.
The challenges ahead not only include communicating the accuracy, uncertainty, and timeliness of the forecasts and warnings (Wernstedt et al. 2019), but also the generation of consistent and actionable information disseminated through multiple outlets, including through the growing enterprise. Meeting this requirement for consistency is essential, as inconsistent and widely varying information, including through social media, can impede decision processes and lessen the willingness of people to respond to emergency management directives and other calls to action (Mileti and Sorenson 1990). Yet social media also presents an opportunity for the NWS to engage with partners and the public to build relationships and trust, so that people will rely on NWS messages in the future. Studies have found that people are often more inclined to comply with a protective action recommendation if it comes from an official trusted source (often a governmental source), rather than an unofficial source (Freberg 2012 ,Ripberger et al. 2015). It is also important to note that consistency does not mean uniformity. While local NWS meteorologists will continue to provide local forecasts, these forecasts should strive to be congruent with forecasts from neighboring and national NWS offices and, if possible, with forecasts from across the enterprise to present a unified message to decision-makers.
With all of the complexities noted above, the challenges loom large to effectively connect forecasts to the diverse set of decision-makers from government agencies to the public. Yet the NWS and the wider enterprise must tackle these challenges head-on if we are to succeed in building a Weather-Ready Nation. We must continue to build relationships with key decision-makers across federal to local levels, work to understand their decision-making needs, and incorporate social and behavioral science to deliver more decision-relevant information when and where it is needed.
EVOLVING THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TO BETTER ENABLE IMPACT-BASED DECISION SUPPORT SERVICES.
The NWS is evolving as an organization to meet the increasing weather, water, and climate needs of the nation and to address the challenges noted above. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) review provided recommendations to align resources, functions, and operations with the WRN goal (National Academy of Public Administration 2013). In response, the NWS restructured its budget, reorganized its headquarters structure, and established a new governance document in 2015 (Uccellini 2016; Uccellini et al. 2018). These efforts were commended by NAPA and established the key building blocks for future change.
The NWS subsequently contracted with McKinsey and Company in 2015/16 to perform an operations and workforce analysis (OWA) with associated recommendations to help guide the NWS toward its vision through a more agile, adaptive, collaborative, and effective organization (NWS 2017b). The analysis was divided into three phases (Table 2). Each phase followed a rigorous and inclusive process to gather input from employees and external stakeholders. The OWA found that IDSS demand across the nation at federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels exceeds NWS’s resources to provide it, and NWS’s operational paradigm was not optimized for providing the increasing levels of IDSS required by our core partners. The OWA noted that 94% of NWS partner interactions and related IDSS were provided at the local level, since most public safety decisions are made locally. The OWA reinforced the need for a local, place-based NWS presence, with an understanding of local hazards, geographies, and potential extreme weather, water, and climate impacts within their county warning areas. This distributed presence allows NWS employees to form trusted relationships with local decision-makers, and to provide situational awareness, forecasts, and warnings connected to local decisions that save lives and property. Figure 2a shows an estimate of the additional need for IDSS beyond what is provided today in each NWS forecast office, even as local offices evolve to meet these needs.
The OWA also confirmed that NWS’s professional workforce is highly skilled, trained, and motivated by the mission of the NWS and the strategic outcome of a WRN. The OWA noted that NWS’s overall employee motivation scores are “off the charts,” with correspondingly high scores for customer focus, similar to the review provided by Goodsell (2011). By and large, the motivation to serve the mission of the NWS translates into support for IDSS. Yet the analysis also discovered that to fully operationalize IDSS and meet increasing IDSS needs (Fig. 2a), NWS must move to a customer-centric paradigm, ensure a workforce properly trained to provide IDSS, and transform its workflows and operations to reduce duplication of effort and to unlock time to provide IDSS. Figure 2b shows the breadth of local and state EOCs across the United States, illustrating one component of the potential demand for NWS IDSS.
The OWA found that the provision of IDSS can vary across the NWS in its implementation. To address this, the NWS is now categorizing its core partners with respect to the provision of IDSS for maximum impact (Fig. 3). Public safety officials, emergency management, and water resource management partners at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels represent the core partners with “deep relationships” to which IDSS is delivered, aligning with the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (2017). In addition, many industry partners support this role for the NWS, while also emphasizing that industry can complement core NWS services (NWS 2017a). Through a 2018 service description document, NWS has also identified areas for which it will not provide IDSS, identifying opportunities for private sector firms to fill this market need (NWS 2018). Lines of communication between the NWS and industry partners help resolve issues if they arise. Furthermore, NWS does not prevent or discourage any entity receiving IDSS to also receive services from industry or academia. NWS is also building and adopting an IDSS management system that spans all of its national, regional, and local operational offices, which will document decision thresholds and other relevant information for all core partners to which NWS provides IDSS. This tool will help link forecasts and warnings with impacts and will assist offices in providing high-quality IDSS consistently across the NWS, either through face-to-face interactions or remote information sharing and briefings. Customer experience metrics are also being developed to assess the effectiveness of our IDSS.
To address workforce skill sets needed to deliver IDSS, NWS is updating its competency models for early- and midcareer NWS forecasters to inform its hiring, promotion decisions, and training requirements. This new competency model takes an interdisciplinary approach, requiring forecasters to have proficiency in observation systems, generating the forecast, communicating the forecast, the science and technology behind the forecast, and teamwork/leadership skills (Fig. 4). This competency model is also the basis for a new and more efficient forecaster career path recently implemented at these career levels. A cadre of NWS forecasters is also becoming qualified as “deployment ready” to serve in EOCs and other offsite locations.
A workforce with acumen in both generating and communicating the forecast will need the ability to speak the technical language of meteorologists, but also translate that language into messages that encourage decision-makers and the public to take action. Best practices in forecast communication based on social science research will be applied by forecast offices across the country, as IDSS is tailored to the needs of local decision-makers. As part of this effort, NWS is making its hazard communications more understandable based on social science research. The ability to influence decisions to exploit the full value of the forecast will be necessary for all meteorologists across the public, private, and academic sectors of the enterprise, including NWS meteorologists.
IDSS policies, tools, skill sets, and metrics are just a few components of what it will take to evolve. To fully position the agency for the future, the systems, processes, operations, workforce, and culture of the NWS must also evolve. Getting there will require a more intense curiosity about 1) how decision-makers in partner organizations function, 2) robust efforts to accurately capture core partner needs, 3) thresholds for key decision points, 4) the application of change management techniques, 5) a deliberate focus on NWS organizational culture and diversity, and 6) a rigorous surveillance of the environment the NWS operates within across all service areas. It will also require new collaboration and communication/social networking technologies to better connect NWS offices with each other, and with decision-makers. Finally, it will require a more agile NWS operating model based on a collaborative forecast process that enables IDSS at any time and any location. We do not characterize this as a new modernization of the NWS, but rather a fundamental commitment to evolve over time to better connect forecasts and warnings to decisions that will save lives and property and enhance the national economy. Figure 5 shows a simplified road map from the OWA, which has been applied to the activities described above to evolve the NWS toward the WRN vision.
INITIAL EVIDENCE SUPPORTING THE BENEFITS OF IDSS TO THE NATION AND LESSONS LEARNED.
Initial supporting evidence.
Based on efforts of the NWS and the larger enterprise, we are already seeing progress toward building a WRN. NWS local and regional field forecast offices and national centers have embraced IDSS as the means to connect forecasts to public safety decision-makers at all levels, within a growing collaboration with the broader enterprise, to make communities ready, responsive, and resilient. Partners are also responding favorably and adjusting their operations based on the information NWS is providing. Below are just a few examples from the growing list of IDSS success stories across multiple service areas and across the nation.
A success owed in part to IDSS is the 2017 east New Orleans tornado (Fig. 6). In New Orleans, the local NWS office had conducted over 100 outreach and preparedness activities with the city over a 4-yr period prior to the tornado, developing deep relationships with emergency managers and government officials. These connections were activated days ahead of a severe weather outbreak on 7 February 2017. IDSS was provided to the emergency management community and other core partners including the media, who in turn raised awareness with schools and other public institutions. Combined with an accurate tornado warning with a 30-min lead time, no lives were lost even as the EF3 tornado ripped through New Orleans damaging many residential, commercial, and public buildings (NWS 2017c).
The 2017 hurricane season provides another example of the positive impact of improved forecasts and warnings combined with the provision of IDSS. IDSS was often provided a week or more before each storm, among other preparation activities (Table 3). For Hurricane Harvey, extreme rainfall amounts and flooding along the Texas coast were accurately forecasted and communicated roughly a week prior to the storm, which allowed life-saving assets to be pre-positioned by federal, state, and local officials, resulting in a lower loss of life. There were relatively few direct deaths (70) due to the storm (Jonkman et al. 2018), particularly when compared with previous storms marked by Hurricane Katrina with an order of magnitude more fatalities. In addition, nearly all of the fatalities from Hurricane Harvey were due to inland flooding, when in the past most fatalities were due to storm surge (Rappaport 2014), suggesting progress in communicating storm surge risks. For Hurricane Irma, the NWS correctly forecasted and communicated a prediction implying significant impacts in Florida a week in advance of Irma’s eventual landfall in the Florida Keys. The governor of Florida had enough confidence in the NWS forecasts and IDSS provided from 11 days in advance that he declared a state of emergency 6 days in advance of Irma’s landfall, saving lives because of the advance planning and related actions made possible by the forecast.
NWS commissioned a study of the social and economic effects of severe winter storms in New York City, highlighting another example of the benefits of IDSS (Hosterman et al. 2019). The study compared the 26–27 December 2010 winter storm, where limited IDSS was delivered by the NWS, to the 2013, 2015, and 2016 winter storms where additional, more formal IDSS was delivered by the NWS. After normalizing for storm severity and other factors, the study found that the additional IDSS likely translated into improved societal outcomes including fewer service disruptions, lower asset damages, and improved human health across the aviation, transportation, and energy sectors, especially for the 2015 and 2016 storms. In other words, IDSS provided a basis for proactive mitigation actions that improved public safety and helped the economy recover more quickly after the storms. The study found that the IDSS was successful because of the trusted relationships between NWS and core emergency management partners, NWS’s understanding of partners’ operational procedures and decision thresholds, and constant contact throughout the storms. Some additional examples, and testimonials from NWS core partners, are provided in Table 4.
As evidence of this progress, Eric Waage, director of emergency management, Hennepin County, Minnesota, stated, “Partnership with the NWS has revolutionized this EM community from one that reacts to events to one that proactively prepares and stays ahead of the extreme events” (Waage 2016). In all of the examples above, the interactions within the entire enterprise, including America’s weather, water, and climate industry, played a critical role in the positive outcomes achieved (see more information in “The importance of partnerships with the enterprise to building a Weather-Ready Nation”).
The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) strongly supported the strategic outcome of a WRN, while also emphasizing that NWS cannot build a WRN alone. The NWS could not agree more. To ensure that the widest distribution of life-saving information is delivered to every segment of society, building a WRN must involve the entire weather, water, and climate enterprise working together toward this common goal, with a focus on a growing private sector providing critical observations and forecasts. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (2017) also recognizes the important role of partnering with America’s weather, water, and climate industry and the broader enterprise.
The United States has benefited from a thriving weather services industry since the late 1940s, delivering forecasts and alerts integrated with business-relevant data sources to provide value-added information to a variety of sectors including the agriculture, energy, retail, transportation, and financial sectors, and supported by foundational observations, data, forecasts, and warnings provided by NOAA and the NWS. Over the last decade, the industry has entered all aspects of the weather, water, and climate value chain including observations, data analysis, environmental modeling, and service delivery, and is now valued at ∼$10 billion and growing 10%–15% annually (NWS 2017a).
There is every reason to assume that these rapid advances will continue and even accelerate in the future. The NWS must continue to harness external capabilities through new, innovative partnerships to provide the foundational observations, data, science, technology, forecasts, and warnings that underpin the NWS mission and enable a large segment of the enterprise. The NWS must also work to strengthen partnerships with the academic sector to foster new innovations and collaboratively develop new numerical models, observations, and other scientific advances to improve our forecasts. Because the majority of the public does not receive NWS information directly from the NWS, America’s weather, water, and climate industry is absolutely critical to building a WRN through the dissemination of NWS forecasts and warnings but also the provision of additional tailored products and services, including holding preparedness exercises and sending site- and customer-specific forecasts and warnings mapped to decision points. For these reasons, America’s weather, water, and climate industry is a large reason why the nation has become more weather ready over the last several decades. Going forward, continued progress will require a strong public sector and private sector operating in tandem and effectively working through challenges to meet the increasing weather, water, and climate needs of the nation.
We understand that tensions may occasionally arise between the sectors. In accordance with the NWS Fair Weather Report, we believe interactions between the sectors should occur regularly, and should avoid defining rigid boundaries between public, private, and academic roles to ensure continual dialogue and exploration of opportunities (National Research Council 2003). NWS will continue to engage with the enterprise through NWS Partner Meetings, Service Change Notifications, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Commission on Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise, AMS and National Weather Association (NWA) meetings, and the Environmental Information Services Working Group under the NOAA Science Advisory Board.
IDSS initial lessons learned.
Even as the NWS makes great strides toward providing IDSS to support building a WRN, the NWS has begun cataloging lessons learned, some of which include the following:
Local presence is essential for successful IDSS: In many ways, the introduction and initial application of IDSS has led the NWS to rediscover what de Tocqueville discovered in his 1838 book Democracy in America (de Tocqueville 1838). De Tocqueville was struck by the extraordinary complicated decentralized character of America’s public administration down to local “townships,” where most decisions associated with the public welfare are made. This is reflected in the celebration recognizing Rhode Island a “storm ready” state where all 39 local townships committed to work together with the NWS to become “storm ready” (Fig. 7).
Weather-based IDSS is different from water-based IDSS: Weather-based IDSS is often more episodic, provided over a relatively shorter time duration (days), and over a smaller area (tens to hundreds of miles).1 Water-based IDSS is usually provided over a longer time period, extending weeks to months after the meteorological event has ceased and over a larger area (hundreds to thousands of miles). Near-term climate events, such as droughts, can last even longer (months to years). These differences translate into different strategies and workflows for providing IDSS.
Rural IDSS is not comparable to urban IDSS: There are significant differences in IDSS between rural and urban areas due to differences in the built environment, the distribution of the population, and socioeconomic and cultural factors. Population density alone does not take into account areas with more transient or seasonal populations (e.g., national and state parks) or the vulnerability to hazards, which may be greater in rural areas. Emergency management resources are more distributed in rural areas, putting a greater demand on the NWS to support these communities before and during events. Overall, decision-making in each region, state, and county is unique, which translates into differing requirements for IDSS at each location.
IDSS is increasingly required at longer lead times, when forecasts are more uncertain: Communicating forecast uncertainties, particularly at long lead times, is an ongoing challenge. The March 2017 blizzard (i.e., early issuance of blizzard warnings for urban areas that were ultimately false alarms) and Hurricane Irma (i.e., confusion with understanding the forecast cone of uncertainty) are two examples where NWS can continue to improve the way forecast uncertainty is accounted for at longer lead times. When forecasts are uncertain, a consistent and unified message, delivered across the NWS and the enterprise, helps to build awareness and drive action.
THE FULL SUITE OF ACTIVITIES NEEDED TO BUILD A WEATHER-READY NATION.
The suite of activities required for producing the NWS weather, water, and climate predictions that enable IDSS, and that in turn result in positive societal outcomes, is shown in Fig. 8. The bottom half of the hourglass in Fig. 8 represents the entire effort to provide increasingly accurate and consistent situational awareness and forecasts, watches, and warnings, which is the basis for the first half of the NWS mission statement: “provision of weather, water, and climate observations, forecasts, and warnings.” Core investments in observations, model guidance, NWS’s One Dissemination network, and related postprocessing product delivery provide the foundation for NWS’s operational forecasts and related services. There are many ongoing activities to improve these areas, which are not discussed in this paper. As an example, the National Blend of Models (NBM) will serve as a common starting point for the National Digital Forecast Database (NDFD) and has the potential to improve the consistency, precision, and accuracy of the NWS product suite (Glahn and Ruth 2003; Gilbert et al. 2016).
The NWS is also building a fully integrated field structure inclusive of all NWS operational offices at local, regional, and national levels. As described by Fine (2010) after the MAR, each forecast office largely operated as an island and measured their success solely through verification of forecasts and warnings. The NWS is shifting to a collaborative forecast process, leveraging the varied expertise across the entire organization from WFOs to CWSUs, RFCs, regional operations centers, and national centers. This will result in more efficient and effective operations and will provide a basis for the consistency required in NWS products and services, particularly where multiple NWS offices serve a single jurisdiction. We are recognizing that evolving the traditional forecast process to one that is more team based, and where success is measured not only by an accurate forecast, but also by a forecast that influences decisions, represents a significant culture and mindset change throughout the NWS. Social science research and concepts will be built into forecast products and services across the NWS, delivered by the integrated field structure. These forecast products will shift over time from predominately deterministic to probabilistic across all scales, across a variety of hazards (e.g., Rothfusz et al. 2018).
IDSS is the lynchpin, placed in the middle of the hourglass (Fig. 8), connecting the production of observations, forecasts, and warnings with the partners and actions required for community preparedness and responsiveness to impending extreme events. A multifaceted communication strategy that includes NWS’s One Dissemination network, satellite broadcast systems, the entire array of social media, wireless emergency alerts, and NOAA Weather Radio ensures that NWS reaches all of our partners in public safety and national security through the weather, water, and climate enterprise, along with the general public, quickly and reliably. NWS preparedness information, forecasts, and warnings are provided to a wide array of the enterprise and beyond through the 300+ storm-ready and tsunami-ready communities and 9,800+ WRN ambassadors throughout the United States that act as force multipliers of NWS information to every town, community, and county across the entire United States (“Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors”). It is through these connective efforts that the NWS works to build a WRN and realize its mission of saving lives and property while enhancing the nation’s economy.
One way the National Weather Service has connected with the enterprise and beyond to organizations that are users of weather information across the nation is through the WRN Ambassadors Initiative, created in 2013. The WRN Ambassadors Initiative weaves the entire weather enterprise into the fabric of local, regional, and national communities of decision-makers: addressing and ensuring awareness, preparedness, and responsiveness to extreme weather, water, and climate events, an essential step for public safety, mitigating property loss, and accelerating recovery efforts after the event. As of August 2019, there are over 9,800 WRN ambassadors located across the entire United States, including public, commercial, and nonprofit organizations from national to local levels. Many of these ambassadors are in the private sector, including within the enterprise and others within the many economic sectors that are dependent on weather, water, and climate information. The number of WRN ambassador organizations has steadily increased, helping to ensure the WRN initiative touches every county in the United States, every day.
The heart of building a Weather-Ready Nation is taking action and improving decision-making in the face of extreme weather, water, and climate events. WRN ambassadors act as force multipliers, not only serving as an example themselves, but also engaging others to know their risk and support informed decision-making. Success stories are numerous because the initiative taps into what each ambassador organization does best. Television stations, for example, are able to access WRN outreach material and share it with their viewers. Public safety officials (e.g., police, fire, and first responders) can encourage best practices across their communities, such as having multiple sources to receive weather warnings. Working together with our WRN ambassadors, and through a whole-community approach, NWS can raise the level of preparedness and decision-making and realize the strategic outcome of a Weather-Ready Nation.
While aspects of the bottom part of the hourglass lend themselves to consolidation or automation as numerical weather prediction and other forecasting tools become more advanced, the top part of the hourglass requires a place-based, distributed, and well-trained workforce across the United States to meet the IDSS needs at all government levels and to support local NWS observations and infrastructure.
We are observing what the OWA and other external reviews emphasized: local, place-based, customer-centered meteorologists and hydrologists providing IDSS to local government officials is crucial to ensuring that every county, every community, is ready, responsive, and resilient, which is key to achieving the vision of building a Weather-Ready Nation. This entire transformation is consistent with best practices in government and the direction of many federal agencies (Chenok et al. 2017).
Over the last decade, NWS has recognized through internal studies, external reviews, and actual events that the key to realizing the strategic vision of building a Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) is to realize the full intrinsic value of forecasts and warnings through impact-based decision support services (IDSS). IDSS also enables NWS to fully meet its mission of providing forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy. It is the lynchpin that connects NWS’s science, technology, forecasts, and warnings to the societal outcomes encapsulated within the WRN vision and the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) strategic objective for the NWS to reduce extreme weather impacts (Department of Commerce 2018). A full transformation to go beyond the provision of forecasts and warnings to providing IDSS to core partners in public safety and national security will require the NWS to evolve as an organization. It will require the NWS to move toward a more customer-centric service delivery model through changes to NWS operations, systems, workflows, culture, and workforce skill sets, all rooted in sound science and engineering. The transformation will also require building and sustaining relationships with key governmental partners in emergency management, water resource management, and public safety and serving their needs through accurate and consistent forecasts and warnings across all levels of the organization.
Initial indicators suggest that NWS is well on its way toward this transformation. NWS employees by and large embrace IDSS as it aligns with their strong dedication to the NWS mission, and are actively making the changes needed to meet partner needs. Externally, the WRN vision has also been embraced by the enterprise and NWS’s parent and oversight organizations. As a testament to this support, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (2017) authorizes the NWS to provide IDSS across federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels of government for the purposes of public safety and disaster management. While not discussed extensively in this paper, there are many exciting scientific and technological advancements in the pipeline to improve the predictive capabilities and decision support services provided by the NWS. We are solidifying our efforts to serve the American public by connecting improved forecasts and warnings to life-saving decisions that enable communities to become ready, responsive, and resilient to extreme weather, water, and climate events: a Weather-Ready Nation.
We acknowledge and thank all employees of the National Weather Service, across field and headquarters offices, for embracing the NWS mission, the Weather-Ready Nation vision, and for their dedication to public service. We also thank Donna Franklin and Douglas Hilderbrand for their support and contributions during the many iterations of this manuscript. The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the Department of Commerce.
There are exceptions of course (e.g., the prolonged hurricane, fire weather support).