What started out as the slow process of returning to “normal” (were we ever normal?) after Hurricane Ian, has been speeding up over the last few weeks. When they started the construction and demolition debris pickups this past weekend, you could really start to see a difference.
Most of the shops are open. The restaurants are open. The bridge is open. There are a few things that aren’t an easy fix, though, and one of those things is our cell phone service. Even with the temporary towers that are installed around the island, there are big dead zones. Some people can’t get service at all in many areas.
If you’re like us and you’re tired of not having reliable cell phone service (or, in some cases, none at all) since the hurricane, you are not alone. Most of us who work inside get calls on our cell phones and have to rush outside to find some sort of signal at all.
I’m not sure how it is at the north end, but more calls are dropped than completed in the village. The south end? Forget about it. It’s terrible.
This can be frustrating when you’re trying to do business, to say the least.
But there’s another aspect of this that perhaps a lot of people haven’t thought about: What happens when you can’t get a signal inside your house and you aren’t able to get outside? Trying to call 911 to report that someone had a stroke, a heart attack, a head injury, or burned themselves badly or had a cutting board accident (charcuterie can, in the end, be our demise at times), what are the odds that your call is going to make it through?
Also, did you know that the medical alert systems that one uses for pushbutton emergency service run on cellular service? Seriously, this isn’t something we want to roll the dice on and call it a day. Eventually, someone could die from a lack of reception. That isn’t acceptable.
We also have that pesky fact flying around our heads that we have a cell phone tower inside an apartment building/bakery downtown. It used to stand at about 160 feet, give or take a few with the appurtenances that have been added. If Sue Sligar, the renter of the apartment where the tower has taken up residence (squatter towers are the worst, by far) had been home during the hurricane, there isn’t much doubt that she might not be here with us to talk about what happened that day. The same holds true for her son, but he was in Greece, so happily he wouldn’t have been there.
But the world would definitely have been a little bleaker without Sue here. To think she could have met her demise via cell phone tower is not cool. But when you mix wind speeds of more than 200 mph with multiple appurtenances attached to the top of a 160-foot tower, uncool things happen.
Keep in mind, it could have also fallen on the Barnichol and, subsequently, the fire department.
The only reason the old tower would have any bearing on the island getting a new cell phone tower is if that spot at 390 E. Railroad Ave. is the only place a cell phone tower can be located. Then we have a bit of a problem, as people have made arrangements to have the remaining pieces taken off the island.
What can we do? Right now, as far as we can tell, this investigation is in its infancy. The tower property is registered to Embark, doing business as CenturyLink of Florida, Inc. The address shown for the company that corresponds with this property is in Broomfield, Colorado, where an industrial business complex is located. Jeff Storey, the CEO of the company, has yet to answer us. The public information officers for the company aren’t answering either.
Again, that’s really neither here nor there when it comes to trying to find a way to put up a new radio tower on the island.
In August of 2020 our island fire chief, C.W. Blosser, co-wrote an informational editorial with the Director of Lee County Public Safety and Lee County Emergency Medical Services, Ben Abes. They both had known for a long time that there were problems with the island’s telecommunications signal. They thought they had the answer for it, too.
A better way for first responders to communicate with each other, with other agencies and with dispatch would have been to include a new radio tower.
“Today, radio antennas sit atop the fire station on East Railroad Avenue,” the editorial said. “The elevation of the antennas and surrounding buildings impair first-responder radio coverage. The location also lacks the height to be able to connect the radio network to the mainland without the use of fiberoptic data services. When those commercial services go down, as they did during Hurricane Irma, the radio site at the fire station and the ability to communicate are lost.”
Keep in mind, 2020 was well before Ian. While fire department personnel have researched their communications issues in great depth and have made changes that have greatly improved the quality of their radio transmissions, the system is not perfect. What triggered the effort by fire department personnel to spend time researching how to improve the existing system stemmed from this: Blosser and Abes put in the work, found out that all federal and state agencies were on board with the plan, and got everything cleared to put a tower at the end of Wheeler Road. The tower was already designed, in fact. But the people who live on Wheeler Road didn’t want it there. So the idea died on the vine. That meant that firefighters had to come up with another solution to a big problem.
It was also brought to light in that 2020 editorial that the Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act limits structures like telecommunications towers, and the only viable place to put another radio tower is on Wheeler Road.
Part of the site is already zoned for it. In fact, a radio tower was located there until 2008, when a County-commissioned report by an independent engineering firm found that the tower could no longer be used due to disrepair.
The editorial also mentioned that “a new tower at this site would be built to current criteria under safety and security standards established by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council. It would have both fiberoptic and microwave communications paths, improving reliability and uptime during disasters.”
Right now it sounds like Wheeler Road is a very good option to solve a problem that is very concerning. People on this island need to know that under most circumstances, they can make a call from their cell phone and it will go through. It’s not just a matter of local business people losing business or island residents losing touch with their grandkids.
It could end up being a matter of life and death – sooner rather than later.
Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.