When many think of a meteorologist, chances are they imagine someone studying all sorts of weather maps while preparing a forecast. Some may think of the person on television giving a brief overview of expected weather conditions over the next few days. Many others perceive meteorologists as the men or women who study the weather and make weather forecasts from the comfort of their own weather office. However, there’s another type of meteorologist you may not be aware of that exists, and they play a valuable role in keeping people and first responders safe in the field.
An Incident Meteorologist (IMET) is a National Weather Service meteorologist specially trained to provide onsite weather support at wildfires and other all-hazard incidents. Stepping out of the comfort of a weather center or forecast office and far away from the spotlight of television news cameras, IMETs go where his or her services are really needed, racing to the front lines to support agencies who prevent and fight wildfires. According to the National Weather Service, IMET support can also be requested by emergency managers for other disasters through mission assignments from FEMA. On an as-needed basis, IMET support may be requested by emergency managers for non-wildland fire events. This is normally done through a mission assignment from FEMA. A local Weather Forecast Office, a National Weather Service Regional Operations Center, and the National Fire Weather Operations Coordinator will coordinate to determine if IMET support can be provided. If so, they’ll identify an IMET to deploy for such a mission. Wildland fire is the top priority for IMET support, though, and takes precedence over support for other issues.
Larry Van Bussum is an IMET who has been with the National Weather Service since 1994. He had been with the weather service in Alaska for a few years when an interesting job opportunity came along. “The job was advertised as an incident meteorologist and a fire weather forecaster which sounded interesting,” said Van Bussum. Van Bussum told us he had always enjoyed working with the fire community and had an interest in emergency management from some of his work he did in Alaska. “I got down there, got certified as an IMET , and fell in love with it.”
Today, Van Bussum serves as the National Weather Service National Fire Weather Operations Coordinator. During the 2017-2019 wildfires seasons, Van Bussum managed nearly 500 missions/deployments involving over 85 IMETs.
The Incident meteorologist program started in 1928. Most are stationed in the U.S. West where it puts them in close proximity to where the majority of wildfires occur.
Once activated, an IMET will travel to the emergency location and immediately go to work. “We go to fire weather incidents and have two main jobs at those fires. One is to keep the crew safe by producing a weather watch and give them a heads-up on lightning and wind switches, ” Van Bussum said. His incident forecasts include wind, humidity, or thunderstorms that may be developing or changing during the next operational period. He’s on the lookout for anything that could put the crew’s safety in danger. “The other thing is to provide forecast weather information that allows the incident management team to make tactical decisions on how they are going to fight the fire.”
Before they’re out in the field providing vital information to first responders there, IMETs go through exhaustive training. Beyond National Weather Service training standards, there are an additional 250 hours of training required and some field trials possible prior to IMET certification. Van Bussum said, “A big part of that training is learning the weather patterns and how to forecast in different areas of the United States.” He adds, “We pride ourselves in the fact that we can put an IMET from any area into any place in the US and they can be up and running in a short amount of time.”
And sometimes, those special skills are required overseas by American allies and partners. Earlier this year, nine IMETs were deployed to Australia to help provide fire weather forecasts to firefighters fighting the massive fires that ravaged the country-continent. In collaboration with the Australia Bureau of Meteorology, IMETSs helped assess and forecast changing weather conditions there in the field as part of overall efforts to control fires.
Smoke from nearby wildfires is so bad in #Sydney that visibility drops to under 2 city blocks at times from our vantage point in the central business district. The area on fire here is larger than all of the land in the Hawaiian archipelago combined. #bushfiresNSW #Australia pic.twitter.com/MhDNjt7x5k
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 10, 2019
These brave men and women keep their portable weather equipment and camping bags packed, ready to be deployed within 24 hours to an incident as the onsite weather expert. Once onsite they typically stay for two weeks and work 16+ hour days briefing emergency managers and fire managers on critical weather conditions while sometimes putting their own lives at risk.
Thanks to their training, the meteorologists can make detailed forecasts for specific locations within the incident once they arrive. Not every request is as large as the Australia wildfires. “There was a spot fire request in California for one of the big trees that a fire was threatening so they had an IMET spend a couple days forecasting the weather for a single tree,” Van Bussum told us. While that may be an extreme example of how precise an IMET needs to be, in most cases the forecaster is providing information that fire crews depend on and will act on to stay safe. “It can be a little bit of pressure. You realize that weather-wise their lives are in your hands.” That pressure is realized when the crews he forecasted for come back after their shift. “You’re briefing them face to face and they will come back and tell you if it helped or not. They are a pretty straight forward bunch,” Van Bussum said.
We asked Van Bussum what’s changed with the IMET program over the years; he said the miniaturization of everything has helped. “Before, we had huge satellite dishes and tons of equipment to bring data in, ” relating to what the IMET experience was like just a decade or two ago. Then, it was not uncommon to need satellite dishes and radio equipment for communication. But now, Van Bussum says, “We are down to a system that would fit in two backpacks. It essentially allows us to set up a mini forecast office.”
Are you an existing meteorologist that wants a change of scenery? Or in school and interested in this unique career path? We asked Van Bussum for some career insight. ”If you enjoy the outdoors and don’t mind roughing it then this may be a perfect opportunity to put your degree to good use. Seeing remote beautiful areas of the United States, being outdoors, and being active….I don’t think I’ve had anything more rewarding than being an active IMET,” Van Bussum said.
The IMETs had a group nomination for the 2020 National Weatherperson of the Year from the Federal Alliance For Safe Homes. The IMETs also won the 2007 National Weather Association Special Achievement Award and the 2003 Department of Commerce Bronze Medal.