Dealing with extreme weather conditions is just part of the job for transmitter engineers working in the far north of the UK. Snow drifts, whiteouts and rolling off access tracks in 4x4s all come as part of the territory for these guys!
24 October 2012 signals the completion of the UK’s digital television switchover, which began in 2008. The existing analogue TV signal will be switched off forever - replaced by a stronger digital signal giving the UK’s 26 million households the option to receive digital TV through an aerial. This is good news for out-of-towners who don’t have the alternative option of cable and satellite, but given that aerials receive their signals from transmitters, mostly situated on blustery hilltops, how does one ensure that aerial-owners receive the same seamless service as urban dwellers?
That huge responsibility lies with communications company Arqiva, which provides much of the infrastructure behind television, radio, satellite and wireless communications in the UK. Being tasked with implementing the biggest project in UK broadcasting history is one thing – maintaining it is quite another – as Alastair McQueen, regional manager for Arqiva in the North, Scotland and Northern Ireland can attest.
There are upwards of 1,150 television transmitters in the UK –McQueen is responsible for maintaining 22 high power sites and around 300 local relay stations – coordinating teams of engineers and power systems technicians who are on-call 24/7 every day of the year.
“Quite a number of our relay stations are on Orkney and Shetland,” explains McQueen. “Aside from the logistical implications our major problem is extreme weather. For example, we frequently experience high winds, which cause electricity failures so we need to get generators to the sites. And when it snows there are often big problems with access.”
Arqiva’s remit is bound by very strict requirements and performance indicators– consequently transmitter sites are categorized according to their importance and are responded to accordingly.
“Some transmitters are quite small and only affected a hundred or so households but others like Skriaig serve 1400 homes on the Western Isles,” says McQueen. “So even if the weather is rough we have to try and get out there.”
One person who knows first hand how treacherous the weather can be is transmitter engineer Stuart Goldie.
“Last year we got a call out to replace a radio transmitter in Skriaig at 5.40am during an amber warning for snow,” recalls Goldie. “I went out with a colleague on foot armed with emergency kits and a bulk sledge to carry the 20 kilo transmitter – but we couldn’t get to the site as there were two metre snow drifts. We rarely abandon jobs – but when it’s dark, the weather is really extreme and it’s deemed unsafe we have no choice.”
But sometimes even leaving the site can be equally as hazardous. Goldie remembers attempting to abandon a site during a whiteout and falling foul of an access track with steep roll-offs. It took a team of rescuers and a JCB to extricate both his team and their 4x4s.
Getting trapped on site in dodgy weather is also a constant risk.
“We all have top end gear which also includes sleeping bags and food rations,” explains Goldie. “There are usually small buildings on site so we can stay relatively warm and safe if we are trapped.”
Given that the weather is inclement more often than not, McQueen’s engineers operate under extremely stringent safety systems.
“We run a winter awareness course in Aviemore that covers navigational and survival techniques, and how to use equipment like snow shoes and poles. In dicey conditions the guys always work in pairs and all carry PDAs which automatically give position coordinates and log times of jobs.”
“We also have to have a GPS – or at least a map and a compass,” adds Goldie. You can turn up and the weather is OK but when you come out you can’t see anything. If you don’t have a GPS you could end up ten miles away.”
Each engineer is also required to send safety calls to the Field Support Team (FST) control centre in Huddersfield every 30 minutes. If they don’t register in that time the FST immediately convene for an emergency rescue meeting.
“We have a very good record of safety – but we also have contractual requirements to meet so we need to be able to push the boundaries a bit and get the guys to the site,” McQueen elaborates.
But it’s not just extreme weather that can cause a major headache – sometimes it’s the lack of it. In 2010 a transmitter site on Scotland’s west coast, which is fed solely by wind turbine and solar power - conked out because there was no wind and not enough daylight hours to top up the solar panels. McQueen’s solution was to transport charged solar batteries to the site on a very costly helicopter.
“With broadcasting you have to maintain very high levels of ability. Our clients include major broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and BSkyB so you have to be dedicated and go the extra mile – literally.”
Is this the job for you?
Arqiva usually take on graduates for more specialist engineering roles at the company’s head office. For the hardcore field work the organisation has established an apprenticeship scheme.
“We bring in young people interested in electronics and radio equipment maintenance and train them to HNC or degree level on a tailor-made course,” McQueen explains. The programmes follow a structured two-year training plan to provide the knowledge and skills required in engineering and technical roles, and apprentices are paid a competitive starting salary and enjoy full employee benefits.
“This helps us on our quest to employ focused engineers,” he says. “On the ground work is demanding but definitely not run of the mill so we don’t have a very high turn over as people tend to stay for many years.”