Bilsdale transmitter: Ofcom in urgent review call as 'delays' found in response to mast fire

The fire at Bilsdale broke out at the transmitter on 10 August 2021. Credit: Adam Gill

A watchdog is calling for broadcasting services to urgently review their contingency plans in a review into a fire at a television transmitter which cut the signal to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Ofcom's recommendations are included in the review into the fire at North Yorkshire's Bilsdale Transmitter which found there were delays in installing temporary transmitters and providing support to affected customers.

The Bilsdale transmitter, owned by Arqiva, provided up to 670,000 homes with free-to-air TV and radio services across Teesside and much of North Yorkshire, with coverage extending from York to Middlesbrough. 

Following the fire in 2021, TV and radio services came off air for a 'prolonged period' and the mast was so severely damaged that it had to be demolished.

In the review, published on Monday 13 June, regulator Ofcom recommended: "Organisations that work together to deliver broadcasting services should promptly carry out their own internal reviews to ensure lessons are learned from the fire at Bilsdale.

"These reviews should consider the adequacy of their plans for recovering services in the event of a major incident, as well as those in place to support and communicate with affected viewers and listeners."

A temporary mast was installed at the site at Bilsdale, North Yorkshire, following the fire in August 2021. Credit: ITV

What did the review find?

The review looked at how the incident was handled and what lessons need to be learned.  

Ofcom said it was "very concerned" by the local impact of the fire and monitored the response by Arqiva.

It found the operator "moved quickly" to restore coverage once it became clear that the damage to the mast was severe.

However, it found there were delays in getting temporary transmitters up and running, particularly the one located at the Bilsdale site, and in supporting customers.

Ofcom said: "Information provided to affected viewers and listeners was initially very general.

"As the situation developed there were delays in providing appropriate targeted support for affected households, which could have been avoided."

'Could have been avoided'

The incident report makes a number of recommendations that the regulator expects the industry to act on to reduce the likelihood of a similar situation occurring in the future.

These include "reviewing the circumstances and response to the Bilsdale fire and consider what worked well, and also where there are weaknesses and areas that need improving".

Issues relating to planning and legal access to land under emergency circumstances should also be considered.

Ofcom will monitor the effectiveness of any new initiatives put in place before it looks at whether further regulatory action is needed.

Arqiva has welcomed the report into the incident and has pledged to work with broadcasters to act on Ofcom's recommendations.

Paul Donovan, of Arqiva, said: “The key recommendations are aligned with the work we have been undertaking since the incident.

"Restoring services has been the main focus for us and since the fire we built an 80-metre temporary mast in two months, commissioned 15 new relay transmitters, built another, more resilient 80-metre interim tower, and we are now in the process of constructing a brand new permanent 300m mast using an experienced North Yorkshire-based constructional steel fabrication business.

"We have also already implemented a range of measures to enhance our fire mitigation, fire protection and disaster recovery procedures and capabilities and will continue to review these areas as we work with the broadcasters to implement the recommendations from Ofcom.”

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