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Redundant systems and Boca Grande’s Auxcomm 

February 29, 2024
By Garland Pollard

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, communications for Cape Haze and Boca Grande went back to the pre-Flintstones era. 

That might sound extreme. It is not, as Barney and Fred had dial phones with animal horns, and TVs with actual rabbit ears on top. The power was out, as was the internet and phone service. Communications were one-way; the only local civilian information was from AM radio station WENG 1530 in Englewood. At one point the station, after hours and hours of broadcasting important local news, was begging listeners for fuel because their generators were running low. 

On island, locals were going house to house, and the only easy communications were from expensive equipment from the Boca Grande Fire Department, of which there was not enough. Many used marine radios, others used amateur HAM radios. People instead came back to the Fire Department in person with information. The Boca Beacon was lucky to score an Elon Musk Starlink for internet.

The island has supported the solution to the issue, the Auxcomm system (see cover story). On Monday, they gathered island organizations to begin full implementation. Auxcomm is a response to a particular situation, in which a hurricane-prone island split by two jurisdictions needs a communications solution in case the regular communications fail – what we call a redundant system. 

What makes the Auxcomm a different sort of redundant system is that it provides everyday walkie talkies that island entities can use, so the system is in place all the time and not just during a disaster. So The Island School, GIBA, Boca Grande Club, Boca Bay and churches can use everyday inexpensive sets on separate frequencies for events and such. The sets even work with iPhone apps, so there is Bluetooth connectivity. 

There is always the need for redundancy. But one of the problems of some redundant systems is that if you don’t use them in the off times, people forget how they work. 

The key thing for redundant systems is that they have a dual function that makes life better when times are ok. It does no good to have a generator in the garage if you have not started it in five years.

The key, like Auxcomm, is to do things that help life get better in the meantime. Apple figured this out when they added a flashlight to the iPhone, and so many other things. What else can be redundant and useful?

• Most new Buicks, Cadillacs, Fords and Jeeps now offer AC outlets, which can be a lifesaver in a storm, but tonic with grandchildren and at tailgates. 

• Local television stations now broadcast digitally, and signals are easily had by simple $30 antennas available at Walmart. Many of you might have been watching WINK remotely across the U.S. by internet stream as it went off the air when their Fort Myers studio flooded and got all the anchors’ feet wet. While we lost WINK (they eventually began broadcasts from their tower site), other TV stations were available if you had an old-fashioned television antenna. (By the way, WINK has a single extra channel with a continuous weather chart.)

• Power lines are now buried, where possible, to reduce outages. The benefit to having them buried all the time is that you do not have to look at them in the interim. FPL even has a price sheet for residents who want their lines buried. It is not free, but like any good redundant system, it pays for itself not only if there is a disaster, but also during the time in between disasters, when the landscape looks pristine.

Where else is redundancy needed?

Sailors and fishermen used to depend on the Loran system of navigation, which worked with pings to provide locations when out on the water. Upon the advent of GPS, fishing captains had to convert dog-eared Loran number books into GPS coordinates. While GPS is a good substitute, it is subject to solar flares and other issues. The Chinese still have a Loran system, and there is talk that the Western world should have an E-loran system, which uses digital signals but works off of pings, sort of a hack of old Loran and far cheaper. 

And back to our friends at WENG. The radio industry has fought to keep AM radio in cars, as it works when everything else does not.

The futurist Arthur C. Clarke had three laws or adages that were attributed to him in the 1960s. One was that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The capabilities of the iPhone are magic. 

We could add a fourth law, that any complex technology is always subject to failure. Ergo, Teslas are great, but perhaps not in a large water event when the power goes.

The generation that grew up during the Depression knew about redundancy, but did not make a science of it. It was just the way things were done. 

One of the leading Boca Grande citizens of the 20th century was a fiend for preparation. One might even have called him a prepper.

During the Depression, when everyone had a self sufficiency frame of mind, Henry Francis du Pont was running his Winterthur Farm back in Delaware. In 1932, during the beginning of the Depression, du Pont asked that a fruit orchard be planted at the farm along with the vegetable garden, to feed the family and farm workers. The farm is now the Wilmington Golf Club, but today it pays homage to the fruit garden and they have kept it going. While most of the original fruit trees have died, the apples and peaches have been replaced. The club’s members and employees enjoy peaches in early August and September, and apples in the fall. 

What else can we do to be prepared for the future, but also make our life better today?

Garland Pollard is the editor of the Boca Beacon. We welcome letters, esays and your insights on local issues.