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Get to Know OPC - Darin Figurskey
Can you please explain your role at the OPC?
I am the Operations Branch Chief at the OPC. I supervise the OPC operational forecasters. I support forecast operations and forecasters, help manage and implement current and new OPC and NWS policies, provide support to leadership at OPC, the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, NWS Headquarters, and in other regions, act as a liaison with NWS partner agencies that provide marine forecast and warning services, and gather feedback from and interact with OPC customers and partners. I think my main role is being supportive, whether that support is for the forecasters, people in the NWS that interact with OPC, or customers that depend on OPC.
How did you originally become interested in the weather and meteorology?
When I was very young, probably around 4 or 5 years old, there was a tornado warning issued for the area in which I lived, which at the time was just east of Pontiac, MI. My family had a black-and-white television, and the tornado warning came on the television, filling the screen with big, black letters of the words “TORNADO WARNING” on a white background. That scared me, but after the storm passed (there were strong winds but no tornado, if my memory is correct) meteorology developed into a fascination that led me to a career in meteorology.
Which college did you attend, and what was your major field of study?
I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. I graduated in December, 1989 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering in Meteorology.
How long have you worked in this field?
I started in the NWS January 16, 1990. I’ve worked in the NWS continuously since then for over 26 years.
Which offices have you worked in, and how did they differ from working at the Ocean Prediction Center?
I started in the Weather Service Office (WSO) in Flint, MI, then I moved to the WSO in Detroit, MI in November, 1991. Both of those WSOs no longer exist. I was selected as a journeyman forecaster in Lubbock, TX, transferring there in November, 1993. In September, 1995, I returned to Michigan as a senior forecaster at the Weather Forecast Office (WFO) in Detroit/Pontiac, MI, which is located in the community of White Lake. The Flint and Detroit WSOs, and the former Ann Arbor forecast office, merged into the Detroit/Pontiac office. While there, I was promoted to the position of Warning Coordination Meteorologist in late 1997. In October, 2001 I became the Meteorologist-in-Charge (MIC) in Buffalo, NY, and I became the MIC in Raleigh, NC in September, 2004.
I first came to the OPC on a detail as Acting Operations Branch Chief in 2015, from June to early August, following the retirement of former Operations Branch Chief Tony Siebers. I am grateful for the opportunity to return as the Operations Branch Chief. My first day back at the OPC was December 14, 2015.
In the WFOs, much of the work is focused on the area of forecast responsibility that is typically part of a state or states, or part of a state to include an adjacent marine area. There are times when an individual at a WFO can be part of a regional or national team to have influence on policies and procedures at those levels, but those initiatives tend to have firm beginnings and endings. At OPC, the forecast and warning responsibility is huge, and being in a national center close to NWS Headquarters allows more opportunity to be involved more continuously, even if it is in just small ways, in items that affect the entire NWS.
What’s the best thing about working at the Ocean Prediction Center?
I enjoy the passion of forecasters, developers, customers, and OPC management when it comes to marine products and services, and their desires to produce or receive the best information possible.
When it comes to the weather, what’s your favorite aspect?
I like active weather of any type, though I prefer it to be while I am in a location away from my home office or not affecting my home office. There is a lot to think about when active weather, especially a significant weather event, affects an office. Are staffing levels sufficient? Are forecasters getting everything they need? How were the services during an event? Is there a report to prepare or a storm survey that needs to be done? Is there any science or technology improvement needed following an event? Active weather is at the heart of the NWS mission, but there are a lot of responsibilities in satisfying that mission, and it can be a relief just to be outside of a home office’s area and enjoy the meteorology and what nature brings.
What is the most memorable weather event that you have worked through?
Probably the April 16, 2011 tornado outbreak in central NC. On that day, I was a severe weather coordinator at WFO Raleigh on a day when 30 tornadoes struck the state. There was a lot of damage and, unfortunately, some fatalities that day, and one tornadic storm came close enough to the NWS office that I had to lead an orderly evacuation of the operations area for a brief time. There were 3 days of storm surveys following that event. Warning services were good, and WFO Raleigh information during, and in advance, of the weather caused many to change plans or modify plans that probably saved lives. It is certainly sad to know some people perished in the storms, but I’m also heartened by how people really listened to NWS information to make some great decisions to keep them out of harm’s way.
Do you have an exciting weather story from your personal experiences that you would like to share??
When I moved to Lubbock, TX, my oldest daughter had just been born. There was a storm southeast of Lubbock, toward the community of Post, that occurred on one of my days off. I heard reports of hail and a possible tornado, so I said to my wife, “Let’s go chase the storm and see if we can get ahead of it.” I loaded my very young daughter in the car, and my wife and I left home and travelled quickly southeast toward Post. Unfortunately, we didn’t get ahead of the storm. We started getting into heavy rain, and then hail. The hail was small at first, but when it got to about quarter- or half-dollar size I decided to stop. I didn’t want to damage my car. I called in my report, and found out that there were some reports of softball-sized hail with the storm. I can’t remember if there was ever a confirmed tornado with the storm, but I know the hail was large. My youngest daughter did very well in her car seat on the chase.
When you leave work, do you still find yourself checking the weather from home?
A little, but maybe not as much as one might think. I’ll take a glimpse at the OPC forecasts and the local NWS forecasts, but if I do it the time spent is only a matter of a couple of minutes. I really like the weather, but I also have interests outside of the job and like to focus on those, too.
Where do you see the field of Meteorology going in the future in terms of forecasting, technology etc.?
Technology is going to continue to improve. When I was in Buffalo, NY, there was a goal mentioned to have an hour lead time for tornado warnings. At first I was very skeptical, and then I thought, “Well, maybe, but probably beyond my lifetime.” Over the last decade, though, computer guidance has continued to get better, to the point where radar can be simulated fairly well over the next few hours or through a couple of days. Maybe that one-hour lead time isn’t so far off after all.
The focus of the greatest human intervention in the forecast process should gradually evolve to the shorter-term parts of the forecast, the hazards, and their impacts. Given enough time, in any subset of the forecast period, I still think a human can do better than computer guidance. However, the amount of data meteorologists can look at, the information that is produced from that data, and the needs of customers and partners continue to increase. Technology continues to evolve rapidly, too, and trying to incorporate changes in the forecast process takes time. Does the new technology help? Is it secure? What’s the cost? Consistency with our NWS neighbors, and over time even with other nations, is also important because we all know weather knows no boundaries. With a lot to consider in the forecast process, and incorporating improvements in technology and the science, it seems only natural that the focus of the meteorologist will tend to be in the shorter-term parts of the forecast, and hazards at any time.
At a bus stop one time, I had a conversation with a member of the general public, and we discussed the field of meteorology. In his opinion, society will always need meteorologists. The guidance might get a lot better, but meteorologists will be needed to help people understand the implications of the weather. His comments fit right in with what the NWS is moving more toward regarding the Weather Ready Nation concept and decision support services. Back when I was working in Flint, MI, in outreach efforts we would talk about how the Flint/Beecher tornado was the last tornado in the U.S. to kill over 100 people. That tornado was in 1953. I really didn’t think there would be another tornado like that again. Then there was Joplin, MO in 2011. The need to be weather ready and for greater decision support definitely continues, over land as well as on the water.
Outside of the office what are some things you like to do in your spare time?
I enjoy racquetball, softball, and bowling. I also like to play basketball, but since I ruptured my ACL in October, 2011 I only will casually shoot the ball in the driveway. I do miss the exercise I got from playing basketball. Basically, give me something with a ball, and I’ll enjoy doing it. I follow southeast Michigan sports, including University of Michigan sports teams. In my lifetime, I’ve seen all of my favorite sports teams win at least one championship, with the exception of the Detroit Lions. I hope the Lions manage to get a championship, too.
Are there any other interesting tidbits about yourself you’d like to share that we don’t know about?
I enjoy playing the trombone, although I only pick it up two or three times a year. I enjoy hiking, and being with family. In terms of food, while I like a lot of different kinds of food, if it is in a casing or greasy, I usually like it a lot. As I get older, I certainly have to limit the amounts I eat of those types of foods, and now I eat a few more salads than I used to.