New island communications tower will enhance island safety, slated for new location

August 14, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

BY C.W. BLOSSER AND BEN ABES- Providing for the safety and welfare is an essential focus of local government. Lee County’s Department of Public Safety, in partnership with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Boca Grande Fire Department, provides these services to keep our community a pleasant place to live and visit, during blue skies and gray.

An essential aspect of providing that service is the ability to communicate with other responders and communication centers, who take the calls for emergency assistance from 911. Lee County began a $13.8 million project last fall to replace the aging radio communications infrastructure to better support the first responders in our community.
Providing this service in Boca Grande presents some challenges. Today, radio antennas sit atop the fire station on East Railroad Avenue. 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 fiber optic 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 is lost.
The Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980 provides important protections for the island.  This act also restricts where and how the County can develop sites to serve our first responders’ communication needs better. A small portion of the Boca Grande Ballfield Park on Wheeler Road is the only location where this tower can be situated.  
This portion of the park parcel was zoned for a radio tower before The Gasparilla Act amendments limited the ability of local governing bodies to grant variances. A radio tower stood there until 2008 when a County-commissioned report by an independent engineering firm found the tower could no longer be used for this purpose due to disrepair.  
As we head toward 2021, plans are in the works. A new tower at this site would be built to current criteria for safety and security under standards established by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council. It would have both fiber optic and microwave communications paths, improving reliability and uptime during disasters. The tower is also designed to allow for up to three cellular carriers to co-locate on the tower, improving service for first responders, residents and visitors on the island.
This type of project on Gasparilla Island necessitates doing our work with careful focus on the desired outcome, but with the most limited impacts on the environment and the character of the island.  Our goal is to work with the community to ensure that we address concerns of residents, while also working to improve first responder communications for decades to come.
Ben Abes is Director of Lee County Public Safety and Chief of Lee County Emergency Medical Services, pictured at left
C.W. Blosser is Chief of the Boca Grande Fire Department, pictured at right