How WGCU overcame Hurricane Ian and kept radio service going through the storm

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When Hurricane Ian tracked toward Florida’s southwest coast in late September, the region’s public broadcaster pledged to provide more than its own coverage of the storm’s impact.

Based at Florida Gulf Coast University, WGCU is jointly licensed with TV and FM stations in Fort Myers and a second FM transmitter south in the Naples area. Many of its employees, including Kevin Trueblood, associate general manager for technology and operations, had new memories of how the station weathered Hurricane Irma in 2017 and took steps to prepare for the next storm. freak. As WGCU employees and their families sheltered in the station building on the FGCU campus five years ago, hurricane-force winds from Irma rattled the front doors but left the otherwise unharmed facility.

For Ian, the scene inside the station was quite different.

The broadcaster’s resilience during the 2017 hurricane caught the attention of local Fox TV affiliate WFTX. Its corporate owner, Scripps, was seeking to fulfill a national mandate to establish emergency relief facilities that could enable its stations to broadcast locally during a natural disaster. WFTX’s studios on the lower coast of Cape Coral had been rendered unusable by Irma. Before this hurricane made landfall, WFTX personnel decamped to a sister station in Tampa, two hours north.

“They wanted to have something locally that they could basically hit the eject button on their own install for some reason,” Trueblood said.

Scripps’ investment in the contingency plan included entering into an agreement with WGCU that included an annual retainer and the installation of a fiber circuit connecting WGCU’s studios to the company’s disaster recovery center. in Detroit. As Ian headed to Fort Myers four years into the deal, the deal paid off for both stations.

Three days before the storm hit, when most forecasts still called for a northerly landfall in the Tampa area, the WFTX press team held a Sunday night dress rehearsal at the WGCU studio as a precaution. On September 27, the forecast began to change. WFTX meteorologists realized that their station’s studio would be in the line of sight for winds of over 100 miles per hour, Scripps’ criterion for triggering movement.

Keep neighborhoods close

That night, the WGCU building was full of employees for both stations. Approximately 40 WFTX press staff have taken up residence along with up to 25 WGCU press and engineering staff.

“Part of the reason this deal worked is that we don’t use our TV studio facilities when we’re deep in storm coverage,” Trueblood said. “We’re in the radio half of the building, so we weren’t really on top of each other.”

true blood

As the storm raged and coverage continued, WFTX split its employees into two teams who worked 12-hour shifts. Since no one could leave, much of the building became a rest area for furloughed Scripps employees. “We had people in the lobby playing Uno, just hanging out and playing video games or whatever,” Trueblood recalled. WGCU’s small press staff camped on the radio side of the building. “If they weren’t sleeping, they were working.”

Meanwhile, WFTX’s news team anchored and produced television studio coverage, using the fiber circuit to send video feeds to the Detroit control room which handled switching and graphics. WGCU-FM’s newsroom began producing its own nonstop radio coverage Wednesday morning as the storm approached landfall.

In addition to reporting by its own staff from the studio and from the field, WGCU relied heavily on the Florida Emergency Radio Emergency Network, based at the University of Florida at Gainesville, which was safely out of the storm’s path.

“These guys are phenomenal,” Trueblood said. “It’s a great resource to have. … A team of meteorologists tells you the conditions, what to expect [and] what is the storm doing? This coverage allowed the WGCU team to focus on reporting on “evacuations and shelters and where to find resources and what to do.” There was some overlap in reporting, “but between the two of us, it was just perfect coverage for what we were doing.”

“Keep track of what’s wrong”

As WGCU’s press team worked with FPREN, Trueblood and its engineering team faced their own challenges in hardening their transmitter sites and preparing them for the storm.

“It was about getting our sites ready and making sure we had generator fuel, making sure our sites were cleaned and secured so we didn’t have any flying projectiles,” he said. declared.

Even the most painstaking preparations couldn’t withstand Ian’s triple-digit winds and driving rain.

“When you’re in the thick of the hurricane, all you can really do is ride it out and keep track of what’s wrong,” Trueblood said. Using remote monitoring systems, WGCU engineers monitored security cameras as the storm opened the entrance gate to the station’s main TV and FM transmitter site. WGCU studios never lost power or connectivity during the storm, but the transmitter site didn’t perform as well. He lost power to the generator and fiber and microwave connections to the studio.

The damage knocked WGCU-TV completely off the air. WGCU-FM was able to continue to serve listeners in the immediate Fort Myers area thanks to another backup: an auxiliary FM transmitter installation on a tower adjacent to the FGCU campus that Trueblood had built after Irma. For approximately 36 hours at the height of the storm, WGCU-FM remained on the air from this relief tower. It was one of the few regional broadcasters able to maintain service during the storm.

The following

Another lesson learned from Irma, Trueblood said, was the need to prepare for a longer recovery once the storm itself had passed. While WGCU’s studio had power and connectivity, the campus and all of surrounding Lee County lost water service when treatment facilities failed after the storm.

“It presented some challenges because now you only have semi-functional toilets,” Trueblood recalled. “We had a lot of bottled water, but the campus cooling plant depends on water to run, so we started losing air conditioning. If you watched Fox all day Friday, it was starting to do a lot warmer in the building. We put a big fan next to the anchor, and you could see the wind blowing.

The washroom facilities at WGCU were only partially functional, so staff members had to walk around campus to use portable toilets that had been set up in a shelter area of ​​the FGCU arena.

The situation began to improve on the afternoon of Friday 30 September. Water service was restored, so the air conditioning system and toilets were put back into service. After 36 hours away, WGCU-TV resumed broadcasting and WGCU-FM returned to full power.

“We all kind of looked at it because there’s no competition here – we’re all serving the public interest. That’s what matters right now. ”

Kevin Trueblood, WGCU

By Friday night, WFTX had confirmed that their own studio was safe and had only suffered minor water damage. Its press staff has returned to Cape Coral in stages, leaving WGCU studios until the next time the emergency deal is needed. But then WINK-TV, Fort Myers’ oldest and most-watched commercial station, considered moving in after its studio in downtown Fort Myers flooded.

Ian brought down the CBS affiliate at the height of the storm on September 28. WINK resumed broadcasting on October 1 from a very improvised studio at its transmitter tower. Staff began returning to their downtown studios, working around Serv-Pro cleaning crews who cut through soaked drywall and tried to mitigate water damage to electronic equipment racks.

WGCU offered their studios to WINK as a temporary facility while their studios were rebuilt. After several days of discussion and a tour, Trueblood said, WINK decided it could continue operating from downtown while cleaning up and rebuilding.

“We all sort of watched this because there’s no competition here – we’re all serving the public interest,” Trueblood said. “That’s what matters right now.”

“In terms of engineering and support, it’s important to build those relationships and be resourceful, because other broadcasters are more than willing to help in those kinds of times,” he said.

Help from pubmedia colleagues

One lesson WGCU learned from Irma was the importance of looking after the personal needs of employees. During this storm, many WGCU employees brought family members to stay at the station; this time many, including Trueblood, sent their families out of town for the duration. (Trueblood made an important exception. His dog, Smithers, made his home at WGCU, staying out of the way in a closet Trueblood had converted into a small den for his four-legged assistant.)

To give staff members time to attend to their own damaged or destroyed homes and other family needs, WGCU enlisted the help of other Florida public stations. In the weeks since Ian, reporters have traveled from WUSF in Tampa, WUFT in Gainesville and WFSU in Tallahassee to provide much-needed assistance.

“Our reporters were able to go home and take care of what they needed, as we continued to get information out to the public,” Trueblood said.

As a university licensee, WGCU was also able to take advantage of a leave pool created by the FGCU to ensure that staff members who needed time off could do so without loss of pay.

As the region’s recovery moves faster than it had anticipated, WGCU continues to proceed “one day at a time,” Trueblood said. This includes fundraising. A pledge campaign in October was canceled after the storm. Trueblood expects the station to soon begin reminding listeners of the value of its service during Ian.

As listeners reflect on the time they went without phone service or power during the storm, one token reward Trueblood expects to be particularly popular is a hand-crank radio, which WGCU donated in its spring training. “It’s an Eton brand, and they can be charged by solar, hand crank or USB cable. I think we’re going to be doing a lot more in the future.

“I really hope this resonates in our community with how … a lifeline we are,” he said. “We continue to take these opportunities to be there for our community. I just hope in the minds of consumers that they don’t forget that.

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