National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Follow-up on Weather Service Modernization and NOAA Corps Issues

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-04-10.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

           United States
           General Accounting Office
           Washington, D.C. 20548

           Accounting and Information
           Management Division


           April   10, 1997

           The Honorable Ken Calvert
           Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
           Committee on Science
           House of Representatives

           Subject:    National Oceanic and Atmosnheric Administration: Follow-up     on
                       Weather Service Modernization  and NOAA Corns Issues

           Dear Mr. Chairman:

           In response to your March 19, 1997, letter, we are providing the enclosed
           responses to questions submitted by Members of the Subcommittee following
           our March 13, 1997, testimony on various National Oceanic and Atmospheric
           Administration   (NOAA) issues. These responses cover two National Weather
           Service (NWS) modernization projects--the Advanced Weather Interactive
           Processing System (AWIPS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental
           Satellite program (GOES)--and the NOAA Commissioned Corps. The basis for
           our responses is our testimony, National Oceanic and AtmosDheric
           Administration:   Weather Service Modernization    and NOAA COIXX Issues
           (GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63,        March 13,1997), and recent reports on GOES,
           Weather Satellites: Planning; for the Geostationarv Satellite Program Needs
           More Attention (GAO/AIMD-97-37,       March 13, 1997), and the NOAA
           Commissioned Corps, Federal Personnel: Issues on the Need for NOAA’s
           Commissioned Corps (GAO/GGD-97-10,         Oct. 31, 1996).

           If you or your staff have further questions or would like to discuss our
           responses in more detail, please call me at (202) 512-6253.

           Sincerely yours,

      fl   Joel C. Willemssen
           Director, Information    Resources Management


                                   GAO/AIMD/G          75R NOAA     Questions and Answers
ENCLOSURE                                                                      ENCLOSURE


Following are questions asked by the Members of the Subcommittee        on Energy and
Environment and GAO’s responses.

Question   1: Has the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration     (NOAA)
              adequately assessed the risks of integrating Weather Forecast Office
              (WFO)-Advanced into the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing
              System (AWIPS)?

GAO Resuonse 1: NOAA officials acknowledge that integrating WFO-Advanced
software into AWIPS is a large, complex task because the software is supplying a major
portion of AWIPS functionality.    NOAA officials also acknowledge that there are risks in
this process and have taken steps to help minimize these risks. For example, as we
discussed on pages 3 and 4 of our testimony, the NOAA laboratory developing WFO-
Advanced did not have the software quality assurance and configuration management
processes sufficient to ensure production of stable, reliable software c0de.l To improve
on the laboratory-developed   software, NOAA has issued task orders to the contractor to
more fully document the design and software code used in WFO-Advanced.          In
addition, NOAA has developed a configuration management plan that will help ensure
control over changes to the software. Page 4 of our testimony describes other steps
NOAA plans to take to help manage risks.

It should be noted, however, that many of these steps have not yet been fully
implemented.   In addition, even with risk mitigation plans in place, risks still often turn
into problems that typically incur cost overruns and schedule delays. As we noted on
page 5 of our testimony, NOAA does not have any cost or schedule allowances to
absorb any delays or cost increases.

Question   2: Is the division of future work responsibilities among the National
              Weather Service, the Forecast Systems Laboratory, and the contractor

GAO Resuonse 2: The strategy NOAA has chosen--dividing work among NOAA/NWS,
NOAA/NWS       labs, and the contractor--optimizes the skills and strengths of each player
and is probably its best route for trying to keep AWIPS on schedule. NOAA officials

 ‘National Oceanic and Atmosuheric Administration:      Weather Service Modernization     and
 NOAA COI-B Issues (GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63,
 March 13, 1997).

 2                               GAO/AIMD/GGD-97-75R          NOAA    Questions and Answers
ENCLOSURE                                                                   ENCLOSURE

recognize that designing AWIPS is not an easy task, and that it was probably unrealistic
to expect a contractor to have the “corporate knowledge”--the understanding of
operational weather forecasting and complex meteorological processes--necessary for
successfully designing such a system. The decision to use WFO-Advanced was
prompted by the more advanced and fully developed capabilities of the system over the
contractor-developed   software, and NOAA officials hoped that using it would enable
them to provide needed capabilities to forecasting offices sooner. Managing the division
of responsibilities among the involved parties is, however, a significant task; therefore,
effective and frequent communication and teamwork among all players is essential to the
success of AWIPS.

Question   3: What are some of the issues that still need to be addressed if NOAA    is to
              develop and deploy the system within the new $550-million cap?

GAO Response 3: It will be extremely difficult for NOAA to develop and deploy
AWIPS within the $550-million cap if it encounters any major problems. However,
given the size and complexity of the development and recognizing that even managed
risks can turn into problems, such problems are likely to occur. AWIPS has experienced
serious schedule delays and cost overruns in the past.

To minimize any surprises that may occur with the remaining development and
deployment work, we see two issues that need attention. First, NOAA management and
the modernization team need to be vigilant for potential problems in the remaining
development work. Getting WFO-Advanced and other government-furnished            software
up to production-level   quality is essential. Government-furnished  software should be
fully tested to ensure that it causes no complications when integrated with other AWIPS
software. Any potential problems should be communicated to senior NOAA
management and congressional oversight committees. The modernization team, NOAA
management, and the oversight committees should work together to devise the most
expeditious and cost-effective solutions to any problems that arise.

The second remaining issue for the AWIPS development is for NOAA to renegotiate the
contract for AWIPS “builds” 4 through 6. While NOAA officials have told us that major
cost and/or schedule changes are not expected, this is not a guarantee that these changes
won’t occur. The renegotiation should be carried out expeditiously, guarding against
any unnecessary changes; progress should be communicated to senior NOAA
management and the oversight committees.

3                             GAO/AIMD/GGD-97-75R         NOAA    Questions and Answers
ENCLOSURE                                                                       ENCLOSURE

Question   4: What is the danger in NOAA’s    continuing   to buy gap-filler   satellites

GAO Response 4: Gap-filler satellites (the “GOES continuation series”) represent
technology and user requirements that were defined more than a decade ago. A lot has
changed since then. Technology now exists that can improve the efficiency and
capabilities of both the GOES instruments and the spacecraft. By continuing to buy gap-
filler satellites, NOAA will be missing the opportunity to take advantage of this
technology. By reexamining the architecture, user requirements, and technology of the
GOES system, NOAA may well be able to develop a significantly more capable and
more cost-effective system.2

Question   5: Does the current GOES imager produce data quickly     enough to meet the
              needs of forecasters who are tracking severe weather, such as the storms
              that struck Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee on March l? Wouldn’t
              more frequent GOES images be useful?

GAO Resuonse 5: According to NOAA and National Aeronautics and Space
Administration    (NASA) officials, forecasters at NWS offices could use more frequent
GOES images to better predict the exact course of severe storms, such as hurricanes,
thunderstorms, and tornadoes. For example, at the time of the severe tornado activity
on March 1, frequent “rapid-scan” GOES images could have helped to more precisely
determine where the storm activity was heading and perhaps enable issuance of a
tornado warning earlier than the one-half hour advance warning that was achieved. In
this particular case, the storm was very well “marked,” meaning that it was not difficult
to predict its course. NOAA officials told us that forecasters were able to use NEXRAD3
radar data at the local weather office level to track the storm and make predictions.
Tracking of a less well-marked storm would have benefited more from frequent (rapid-
scan) GOES images, which would have shown where the overall storm system was
headed and how it was developing. Having said this, however, it must be noted that
none of the weather offices in the affected area are yet equipped with AWIPS stations.
 Because of this, it would have been impossible for them to receive GOES rapid-scan
 data, even if it had been produced.

‘See Weather Satellites: Planning: for the Geostationarv   Satellite Program Needs More
Attention (GAO/AIMD-97-37,      March 13, 1997).

“NEXRAD, or Next Generation Weather Radar, is a Doppler radar used to determine the
speed and direction of rain or snow particles, cloud droplets, or dust moving toward or
away from the radar. NEXRAD is one of the major systems developed under the NWS
modernization program.

 4                             GAO/AIMD/GGD-97-75R           NOAA    Questions and Answers
ENCLOSURE                                                                     ENCLOSURE

The GOES imager has the technical capability of producing images of small areas, such
as adjoining states, at l-minute intervals. This capability was demonstrated during the
on-orbit check-out periods of GOES-8 and GOES-9 spacecraft. However, it is not part of
normal operations because it would prevent other required observations. If such a
capability were regularly available, it would greatly improve the ability to predict the
onset, location, movement, and rapid changes associated with severe weather events.

Question   6: What is your assessment of the utility   of the GOES sounder?

GAO Resuonse 6: Although sounders have flown on GOES spacecraft since 1980,
geostationary sounder data have seen little operational use to date. This is in marked
contrast to data from the imager, which are vitally important for tracking severe
weather. However, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions. Researchers have made
much progress in experimenting with GOES sounder data and, as of this past February,
sounder data are now being used operationally as input to at least one of the standard
analyses that are performed by NWS using its prediction models. NOAA officials with
whom we spoke believe that greater experience with the sounder will yield important
uses for the data in the future. Now, however, the sounder remains far less important
than the imager, which is still increasing in importance to forecasters.

Question   7: Would it be useful to resurrect NASA’s old Operational Satellite
              ImFrovement Program (OSIP) as a way of advancing technology for the
              GOES program?

GAO Resuonse 7: OSIP and its predecessor projects at NASA were vehicles through
which NASA developed early versions of both the GOES system and NOAA’s polar-
orbiting satellite system. The NASA-developed satellites gave NASA and NOAA the
opportunity to gain experience in operating meteorological satellites and analyzing their
observations on an experimental basis. NASA’s elimination of OSIP left NOAA without
the engineering support required to design, develop, and test new spacecraft and
instrument technologies before incorporating them into the agency’s operational satellite
systems. However, it may not be necessary to reinstate OSIP as such in order to receive
these benefits. NASA has several avenues within its existing programmatic structure for
undertaking research and demonstration projects related to advanced weather satellites.
For example, this past February NASA initiated an advanced geostationary studies
program to pursue the development of new experiments, such as the Geostationary
Advanced Technology Environmental System (GATES). Currently all initiatives,
including this one, are limited to exploratory studies. Neither NOAA nor NASA have
committed for longer term funding for early experiments or flight demonstrations at this

5                              GAO/ AIMD /GGD-97-75R       NOAA   Questions and Answers
ENCLOSURE                                                                      ENCLOSURE

Question    8: Although the NOAA Commissioned Corps is a uniformed service, please
               describe how the NOAA Corps differs from military service.

GAO Response 8: NOAA Corps members’ entitlement to military ranks and military-
like compensation, including eligibility for retirement at any age after 20 years of service,
was an outgrowth of temporary service with the armed forces during World Wars I and
II. Even though the Corps has not been incorporated into the armed forces since World
War II, it has retained virtually the same pay and benefits as the military, including
retirement. NOAA Corps members, however, are not subject to the Uniform Code of
Military Justice, which underlies how military personnel are managed, and can quit the
Corps without legal sanctions. We discuss differences between the NOAA
Commissioned Corps and military service on pages 5 and 6 of our report, Federal
Personnel: Issues on the Need for NOAA’s Commissioned Corps (GAO/GGD-97-10,
 Oct. 31, 1996).


 6                              GAO/ AIMD /GGD-97-75R         NOAA    Questions and Answers
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