Iain Forsyth

Iain Forsyth, Head of the Public Weather Service

28 February 2011

We all count on the Public Weather Service. As Head of the Public Weather Service (PWS) for the past three years, Iain Forsyth explains the crucial role the PWS Advisors play in saving lives and protecting the UK's infrastructure and economy from damage caused by the weather.

As Head of the Public Weather Service (PWS) for the past three years, Iain Forsyth explains the crucial role the PWS Advisors play in saving lives and protecting the UK's infrastructure and economy from damage caused by the weather.

When severe weather strikes, we all rely on the Met Office's Public Weather Service (PWS) to warn us about it. Thanks to the dedicated work of the PWS Advisors, the Government, local authorities and emergency services are able to prepare and respond quickly.

Q. Can you describe what the Public Weather Service does?

A. The PWS is a UK Government-funded operation that communicates the Met Office's day-to-day and long-range forecasts. If public safety is at stake, it also gives advance notice with its National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS). We currently have ten Advisors in the PWS team providing critical support and advice for Category 1 and 2 Responders - namely the local authorities, emergency services such as the police and fire services, utilities, Environment Agency and Highways Agency. But the PWS isn't just about providing warnings. We help people plan their leisure activities too for when conditions look fine whether they're planning to go surfing or find the sunniest spot for a picnic.

Q. What is the main role of the Advisor?

A. It's safe to say that our Advisors are generally more out, than in. They spend a lot of time getting to know their community; what the local issues are and how best to prepare the town or village for extreme weather events. Many of them also take part in 'on the ground' training, such as 'Exercise Watermark' - run by the Environment Agency. It's already proved invaluable in equipping Advisors with the practical understanding needed to put plans in place and lessen the impact of severe weather.

Q. Who do the Advisors report to?

A. PWS Advisors regularly take part in debriefings at high levels in the community and at ministerial levels. For extreme weather emergencies, they attend emergency COBR (Cabinet Office Briefing Room) sessions at No.10 with the Prime Minister, or with ministers and officials in the Devolved Assemblies. During the cold snap in December 2010 our Advisors were attending Cabinet Office meetings, either in person or by teleconference, almost every day - working closely with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

Man in the rain with an umbrella

Q. How does the PWS deliver information and warnings to the public?

A. Out of the thousands of routine forecasts we make every day, we issue hundreds of weather warnings in a year. As soon as observations come in from the Met Office's operational centre, Met Office forecasters immediately translate the data and transmit it via email, fax and text message to all emergency Category 1 and 2 Responders. At the same time, these forecasts and warnings appear on the web, radio, the BBC and ITV and on mobile phones for the public.

Q. Who are the Public Weather Service Customer Group (PWSCG) and what is their role?

A. The PWSCG's main role is to oversee the PWS on behalf of the public. For concerns such as public transport and flooding defences, the PWSCG helps decide what the general population and responders need to deal with weather emergencies. Importantly, they ensure the PWS meets everyone's expectations in terms of quality and value for money - especially when it involves efficient use of resources, like road salt supplies. In fact, from a return on investment perspective, the PWS has consistently shown the economic value it creates is many times higher than the funding it receives.

Q. Where would you like to see the PWS heading in the future?

A. During the 2007 floods, the PWS made massive strides forward, working with the Environment Agency. But our long-term goal is to fully integrate our advice with other agencies and create a consistent, 'one stop shop' source of information. Also, PWSCG research has shown that people want their daily weather forecasts presented in a format they can use on the move. So in January last year we released a free Met Office iPhone Weather app, which has been a phenomenal success. Overall, it's exciting to see that, as weather forecasting continually evolves, so have the Met Office's technological capabilities. In one month alone, we've gone from forecasting weather across 480 locations on the Met Office website, to 5,000 locations throughout major towns, cities and places of interest in the UK. It's innovations like these that will help the Met Office provide highly accurate information on an even wider scale, which ultimately will result in more lives and money being saved in the future.

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