On the Air

On the AirOn the AirOn the Air

T he start of Gil Simmons’s work day is “like being shot out of a cannon,” he says, driving his arm in an arc high over his head. The man who brings New Haven its first weather forecast each day gets that explosive start at 1:30 a.m. But that’s the way he likes it.

In fact, at 6:15 on a recent Monday morning, everyone at WTNH, from the young woman who lets me in the side door off State Street to the news team in the studio, is wide awake. Simmons’s day is more than half finished.

He started this morning as he does every other: on a computer at home, researching computer models, posting the weather “deal of the day” on social media, updating WTNH’s weather web page and beginning to craft the morning’s forecast. About an hour later, he heads to the studio, where he runs another check on the forecast he’s prepared, records radio reports, freshens the web page, prepares the graphics for his broadcast and gets his makeup done for a 4:30 on-air start.

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This morning, Simmons is warning viewers that the forecast of high temperatures in the 40s may be deceiving due to wind chill; it’s going to feel more like 30-something out there. This is just one example of what he says sets his forecast apart from what you may pick up on your phone’s home screen or the Weather Channel.

“I like to humanize the weather forecast,” he says. “Anyone can get up there and spit out a bunch of numbers… but how does it impact me today, how are my kids going to be, getting off the bus with that 40 to 45 really feeling like 30 to 35?” It’s not that the apps aren’t helpful; News 8 has one. “But we go in there and hand massage it.”

There used to be about three good computer models to consider when building a forecast. Today, with a plethora of ever-changing data, Simmons says experience is even more crucial to making good predictions. “I know which things I should be relying on or checking in on,” he says, and which information is superfluous. Living in the forecast area also makes a difference. “In our little corner of the world, this thing called Long Island Sound is a big influence on the New Haven area weather,” Simmons says. “You could be in New Haven and then go to Woodbridge, and you have a different sort of climate.”

Even with all their experience, there are times when Simmons and his colleagues get it wrong. They are, after all, predicting the future. They’re also trying to give a meaningful forecast to the entire state in two and a half minutes. “We get beat up with the snow forecasts where people say, ‘Hey, you said this, or you said that,’” Simmons says. Part of the problem is that weather isn’t as uniform as we imagine it to be, even within the same town. “Elevation can make a big difference, distance from the Sound can make a difference,” he says. “It’s a challenge for us.”

Nevertheless, Simmons says he takes it hard when he gets a forecast wrong. “What I say to everyone is, ‘There’s no one more upset than the person you’re talking to. I take a great deal of pride in getting it right.’”

Getting it right was an absolute must for Simmons early in his career as an active duty meteorologist/oceanographer with the Marine Corps. “You couldn’t tell the general in the airplane, ‘Well, there might be a shower, Sir. Good luck’… We had a lot of money and lives at stake.”

Of course, lives are sometimes at stake with the WTNH forecast, too. During a break in the early morning broadcast, temporary traffic anchor Alyssa Rae Taglia calls Simmons over to look at a live shot of cars backed up on a local highway. There’s a light dusting of morning snow in some parts of the state, which has melted and frozen, causing icy conditions.

As soon as the regular broadcast ends at 7 a.m., Simmons strides between the set’s curtains, through a garage and into the parking lot to do two quick videos for social media. Then it’s back inside for a quick break before he’s on the air again at 7:20, 7:55, 8:25 and 8:55 during the national broadcast of Good Morning America. Between those times, Simmons says, “I try to get a lunch down, we have to redo the radio forecasts [and] I always look at the newest data coming in to the weather center.”

At 10 a.m., senior meteorologist Fred Campagna will arrive. He and Simmons will consult on the forecast, then Campagna will take the helm for the noon and 5 p.m. broadcasts. Overlapping and having a chance to consult “helps to gel more of a forecast instead of these dramatic swings every single shift,” Simmons says. New computer models come out during Campagna’s shift, so he’ll update the forecast for 5 o’clock. Simmons’s co-chief meteorologist, Joe Furey, will take over for Campagna for the 6, 10 and 11 o’clock broadcasts, and then Simmons will be up and at it again.

Despite the early hours, Simmons says he likes the morning shift. “There’s something about early in the day,” he muses. “It’s your world.” And the morning is a new beginning for the news cycle, a time when the news “still has an opportunity to grow.” By late afternoon, people are “studied up,” he says, and it’s harder to have an impact.

Having an impact on people’s lives is what Simmons is all about. “I feel like I’m doing a public service to people who are getting their first greeting of the day,” he says. “If I can try to keep that glass maybe a little over half full, especially on a Monday when maybe we’re all cranky to some extent… [I] try to just make it easier and break it down for people to make their lives easy. That’s my goal.”

It’s time to end our conversation—Simmons’s first Good Morning America shot is coming up. I follow him down the hall to the studio with maybe a minute to spare: “Good morning, everyone… There are some icy spots in the center and top of the state. We are getting some flurries coming down. Those are going to disappear, not going to hang around all day today, but 40 to 45 will do it. And dress for 30 to 35. That’s going to be the wind chill, some of those wind gusts 30 to 35 miles per hour…” He hands it over to Taglia for the traffic report.

Out in the parking lot, I’m surprised to find that the sun has risen. On Elm Street and Orange and Church, traffic is flowing. A few pedestrians stride purposefully toward their offices, some clutching coffee cups. Wind charges around the corners of the buildings. New Haven is awake and ready for another day.

WTNH Storm Team 8
8 Elm St, New Haven (map)
News Broadcast Timing: 4:30-7am, 9-10am, 12-12:30pm, 5-6:30pm, 11-11:30pm
(203) 784-8888
www.wtnh.com/category/weather

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is The Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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