Sun setting on weather calls to BWI Public's inquiries will go to Va. as phone is unplugged

Line to go dead Thursday

After nearly 50 years, local office is victim of cutbacks, technology

July 28, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

A thick cumulus cloud forms on the horizon, the winds whip at 30 knots and skies darken ominously in the west. There's real weather going on out there, and the phones are going crazy in the National Weather Service office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

In the midst of growing uncertainty, it's predictability that callers crave.

What will the cloud cover be like tomorrow, the film crew for Clint Eastwood's new movie, "Absolute Power," wants to know.

Should a picnic for 300 be scrapped in Carroll County? What's the outlook for Kings Dominion amusement park?

And, in the middle of it all, a Baltimore school worker needs to know what the weather was like -- on Feb. 3.

For nearly a half-century, forecasters at BWI have doubled as statisticians, historians, travel agents and social directors. But come Thursday, their phone line will go dead, the result of the National Weather Service's $4.5 billion modernization and downsizing.

The National Weather Service expects to reduce its staff from roughly 6,400 employees to 4,670 by 1998, replacing many workers with outside contractors who are not eligible for federal benefits.

Improved technology has allowed the weather service to streamline its operations across the nation. Forecasting duties for most of Maryland were shifted from BWI to Sterling, Va., several years ago, leaving a skeleton crew of three to monitor the weather, update a weather recording and answer the phone.

Now, they are retiring or being transferred to other jobs. The federal government, bowing to concerns from pilots and air traffic controllers over initial plans to leave the office unstaffed, has contracted with a private company for three observers to monitor the weather.

In a technological age -- with weather available 24 hours a day on a radio band, cable television and a half dozen Internet sites -- public service stations such as BWI's may indeed seem obsolete.

Baltimore-area residents who want to talk to the National Weather Service will now have to dial a long-distance number, (703) 260-0107, and chances are they'll get a busy signal or phone menu.

System to be 'better'

"A lot of times, it's going to be tough to get through to a human voice," says Jim Travers, head meteorologist at the Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office near Washington-Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va., 60 miles away.

"But we're no different than most other government agencies. The budgetary pressures are forcing us to downsize. But overall, the system is going to be much better with excellent forecasting capabilities."

In fact, the $4.5 billion modernization effort, expected to be completed in 1998, is equipping the National Weather Service with more powerful radar, more sophisticated satellites and new ground weather detection equipment. Hundreds of smaller weather stations are being eliminated, but the number of regional forecast offices will be doubled to 119 by 1998.

But come Thursday, a personal touch -- delivered with no small amount of humor and patience -- will be missing.

"Yes, I think there'll be enough sun at the beach this weekend to keep you away from those evil tables," forecaster Dick Diener, 59, quipped recently to a caller worried about her bus trip to Atlantic City.

Over the years, BWI forecasters have been there for the Westminster lady who routinely checked into hotels as severe thunderstorms approached, and the Baltimore woman who was afraid to flush her toilet during storms.

They have alerted golf course managers and Little League coaches about lightning, tipped off the Bowie Baysox grounds keepers about approaching tornadoes, counseled mothers of asthmatic children and chatted with weather junkies about their barometers.

"It's the contact with the people that gives substance to what we're doing," Diener says. "People run the gamut, but they've all got questions that are important to them."

While weather information is important to the public, it is critical to aviation safety and the air traffic controllers and pilots who rely on the National Weather Service for data about landing and takeoff conditions.

Sensors in runway

The control tower at BWI will continue to receive the latest local weather conditions from the regional office in Sterling. In addition, a new cluster of sensors implanted in the runway at BWI will provide data about the weather conditions over small patches of air and terrain.

Designed by Hunt Valley-based AAI Corp., the Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) functions as the ground-based portion of the modernized weather network that also includes satellites and Doppler radar systems. It collects data continuously at a fixed point, then extrapolates the information to cover an area of several miles.

Yet, ASOS has limitations. Because it can "see" only straight up, it is unable to detect thunderstorms or tornadoes unless they are directly overhead. It cannot distinguish between a patch of ground fog and widespread fog moving in from the bay.

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