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The Bureau of Meteorology is battling to do its job after years of government-imposed funding cuts according to insiders who warn that lives are at risk as Australia faces this year’s “extreme weather season.”
Successive “efficiency dividend” cuts have left the Bureau of Meteorology short of staff and battling faulty and ageing equipment, according to insiders and unions.
Lives could be lost to summer cyclones or bushfires as the bureau’s dwindling resources are stretched beyond capacity and unable to cope with multiple dangers weather situations at the same time, The Canberra Times has been told.
But the bureau has rejected the claims with a spokeswoman saying was successfully monitoring multiple weather events all the time.
BOM staffers, through their union, Professionals Australia, say that years of cuts have left bureau bosses reliant on a Dad’s Army of retired meteorologists to plug the growing gaps in the ranks of its weather specialists.
Regional weather stations around Australia are being manned by just one worker or even left unattended in the hope that the ageing automated forecasting equipment will do the job.
A project to upgrade the nation’s network of 63 weather surveillance radars is stalled due to a lack of expertise and one of two the two main radars in South Australia, which recently faced a serious bushfire crisis, was out of action for several weeks recently.
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The growing unease at the bureau, which finished 2013-2014 nearly $74 million in the red, is being exacerbated by delays in offering a new wage deal to its 1700 public servants who have not had a pay rise since July 2013.
More than $58 million was allocated to the BOM in the 2013-2014 budget to implement the findings of the “Munro review”, a scathing 2011 report that �0�2found the bureau struggling to cope with the flood, bushfires and cyclones that hit the country early that year.
But Professionals Australia says the cash has been swallowed up by the efficiency dividend, an across-the board 2.5 per cent cut imposed on government agencies, and that recruitment of forecasters is not keeping pace with the rate of retirements by experienced weather specialists.
Last year’s budget singled the BOM out for another $10 million in “efficiency” cuts over four years.
Another issue is the time it takes to properly train a forecaster once they are hired, up to nine months training and then a year to achieve the required competencies.
Staff shortages are also being reported in the BOM’s IT, engineering and observations areas, leading to problems maintaining radars and the bureau’s synoptic network.
“Staff are concerned about what might happen if there were more than one significant weather event at a time…coming into “severe weather season” (February ) this is a particular concern,” one staffer said.
“For instance, if there was a bushfire somewhere, at the same time as a cyclone.
“We all want more and more weather forecasts… but the poor old forecasters are carrying the load, plugging the gaps…and the public has no idea.”
But the BOM’s spokeswoman rejected her colleagues’ claims that the organisation was stretched beyond capacity.
“This is not correct,” she said.
“Bureau can, and indeed is currently handling more than one severe weather event at a time.
“In meeting a particular surge capacity requirement, the Bureau redeploys staff from other states and territories in its network of regional offices to meet increased demand for significant weather events.”