Congressional Concerns delay weather system

Despite the National Weather Service's best efforts, its Advanced Weather Interactive
Processing System will not be installed in government forecasting offices and weather
centers before year's end.


NWS had planned for AWIPS implementation to begin late last month. But Commerce
Secretary Mickey Kantor postponed his decision on whether to approve nationwide deployment
of AWIPS until January.


The hold-up was prompted by congressional concerns laid out in the report accompanying
the fiscal 1997 omnibus appropriations bill, AWIPS program manager Mary Glackin said.


AWIPS is the core of NWS' $4.5 billion weather systems modernization. But Congress, the
General Accounting Office and the Commerce Department inspector general have criticized
the department's rollout plans as hasty. NWS has been testing AWIPS in operation at nine
sites this year, and it had planned to move ahead with implementation last month.


"We had been on a path to start our full-level deployment in October,"
Glackin said.


But Congress placed a $525 million spending cap on the project, cut 1997 funding by 17
percent and ordered the department to get congressional approval for any deployment.


Kantor, for his part, also voiced some concerns, particularly about the last-minute
addition of a new component. For these reasons, he declined to sign off on a National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report recommending that the department proceed
with full deployment. Kantor's final decision will come after reviewing another report
that Glackin said is being drafted now.


AWIPS is a sophisticated suite of display and communications hardware with 1.5 million
lines of software code being developed jointly by NWS and PRC Inc. It will run on hardware
supplied by Hewlett-Packard Co.


AWIPS has grown from a 10-year, $350 million program in 1985 to a $525 million program
now scheduled for completion in 1999. It will replace the current Automation of Field
Operations and Services system.


Postponing the implementation phase is the latest setback for the program. Early
development delays and problems had led the General Services Administration to place AWIPS
in its Time-Out Program. But it seemed last year that NWS had it back on track.


Despite these efforts, GAO continued to complain that NWS had not fully justified the
need for the system's capabilities, and the department's IG recommended that NWS move more
cautiously in putting AWIPS in forecasting and field offices around the country. Both GAO
and the IG called the speedy deployment schedule too aggressive.


But the National Research Council, hired by NOAA to review the results of the
operational tests, concluded otherwise and this spring called AWIPS ready for prime time.
Arthur I. Zygielbaum, a NASA engineer who chaired the NRC AWIPS review committee, told a
congressional committee the system works and "the need for AWIPS is real and
immediate."


The spending cap alone, which gives the project about $20 million less than its
developers would have liked, would not have delayed deployment of AWIPS, Glackin said. The
project was capped at $525 million. NWS had spent $261 million through fiscal 1996.


"We would have liked to have more, but we probably would have taken a deep breath
and gone ahead," Glackin said.


But the 1997 AWIPS budget was cut from a requested $120 million to $100 million, which
would have stretched out a projected two-year deployment by four months.


Before that deployment begins, the appropriations report directs the administration to
submit a reprogramming request to Congress. This usually is required when a department
wants to spend money on a program other than that for which the money was appropriated. In
this case, the reprogramming requirement will give Congress a veto over any decision to
roll out the system nationally.


As for the new AWIPS component, NWS wants to include in the system what is called the
Weather Forecast Office Advanced module. WFO Advanced would handle more data sets and let
forecasters generate warnings and forecasts more quickly, Glackin said. It is a site-level
application without communications functions, she added.


"Our experience with this software package has been so positive that we decided to
take some measures to integrate it into the initial increment of AWIPS," Glackin
said.


Additional information on WFO Advanced and a new deployment schedule will be added to
the NOAA report for Kantor's review, she said.



About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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