South Florida: Hampering Hurricanes

It’s June in South Florida, and that means the beginning of hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 until November 30. In addition to ratings, DTV transition costs, and competition from cable, broadcasters in this region of the U.S. have to fret over the possibility of their towers being bent or even knocked over by the 74 mph-plus wind speeds typical of hurricanes. Luckily, they’re used to it.

Most South Florida broadcasters would agree there isn’t much one can do to protect an antenna per se. Perhaps Ron Rowe, chief engineer at Tribune-owned WBZL (WB), in Hollywood, said it best: “You don’t really protect them, you pray.” Since Rowe’s station rebroadcasts the news from WTVJ (NBC), it doesn’t have any newsgathering vehicles to worry about, but still has to protect its transmission site. To that end, it has developed a contingency plan that would allow for it to move its master control to another Tribune-owned “buddy” station if its transmission facilities were wiped out. Additionally, every time there’s a hurricane warning, station staff make copies of the traffic system data and send them to Tribune’s corporate headquarters and the buddy station to use as a playlist.

Joe Garcia, chief engineer for Miami’s WFOR (CBS) and its O&O stations WBFS (UPN) in Miami, and WTVX, in West Palm Beach, says his group focuses on protecting the studio from which the stations transmit. “We prepare for staff staying here at the television station during the storm—so we stock up on food and water,” he said. “We have contracts with portable air-conditioning companies and RVs and even porta potty companies, so if we were to lose the facilities here, we would still have a way to continue to work out of this building.” If the studio were to lose its transmissions lines (of which there are three, one for each station) contingency plans allow for transmission directly from the transmitter site. Underground fiber serves the cable headends and 80% of the stations’ viewers.

In addition to contingency plans similar to those of the stations discussed before, WSVN (FOX) in Miami employs a “don’t-put-your-eggs-in-one-basket” method for protecting its newsgathering vehicles. When a hurricane is imminent, the station sends the trucks out to different geographic areas. Although this still puts the trucks at risk of being damaged, it significantly lessens the likelihood of all of them being hit at once.