17th December 2018
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Scott continues to push BT for answers

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Isles MSP Tavish Scott has been denied access to a BT internal investigation following a major phone blackout in the isles last month.

Mr Scott is continuing to push the communications company after residents in the isles were unable to dial 999 for several hours because of the phone line problem.

He said residents and business owners deserve more than a “BT fob off” and questioned whether the emergency services and NHS had seen the report, and if not, why not.

Shetland Coastguard lost radio and phone links and the Gilbert Bain Hospital encountered issues with its phone lines on Saturday 25th July.

Meanwhile, Sumburgh Airport had to close and 11 flights were cancelled because of the impact on radar systems.

BT said the outage was because of faults at Wideford Hill Radio station in Orkney. Two power rectifiers had blown, which then blew a number of fuses, the company said.

Connections also went down in Orkney including access to emergency services.
BT said services were restored about five hours later, after all the blown equipment had been replaced.

About 390 customers lost broadband and 2,640 lost their phone connection.

Mr Scott has been calling for a report from BT explaining why there was a blackout.

In an email correspondence seen by this newspaper, Mr Scott asked BT Scotland’s head of policy and public affairs, Mark Dames, for a written explanation.

Mr Scott wrote in the email sent on Wednesday: “I am sure that BT have now fully investigated this matter and would be grateful to receive the written explanation and the guarantee that my constituency will not lose emergency connections again.”

In response Mr Dame said: “We have carried out a full technical review, rerouted key links and are planning longer-term work to minimise the risks and impact of any future incidents.

“While incidents of this nature are rare, we cannot guarantee a fault-free infrastructure and this is the case UK-wide.

“That said, we’re doing everything we can to learn from this and to make sure there is no repetition.

“I am unable to share a copy of BT’s internal investigation with you; however, as already discussed, I would be more than happy to arrange a meeting to respond to any questions you may have.

“Please accept my apologies once again for the disruption caused.”

Last week BT press officer Ian Arnot said Wideford Hill was one of the main connection points for Shetland, but not the only one.

“BT uses both sub-sea cables and wireless links to provide resilient links for phone calls and data services into the Scottish mainland, ” he said.

“The BT network serving Orkney and Shetland is designed to provide back-up in most scenarios, with separate radio and sub-sea cable routes providing back-up for each other.

“Unfortunately as a result of the fault this back-up failed for some services and we are now taking action to correct that.”

Mr Arnot said following the damage to some power rectifiers and fuses, “some traffic was found to be relying on Wideford for both the main and back-up paths.

“We are investigating why this happened and working on reconfiguring the network to prevent any repeat.

“It is possible that damage may have been caused by previous lightning strikes locally damaging our equipment, but we cannot confirm that at this stage.”

The Shetland Times this week asked again if a reporter could speak to director of BT Scotland Brendan Dick but was told given the statements that had already been issued by BT, he would not be put up for interview.

Mr Scott has asked the following questions in his email to Mr Dame this week:

1. Please detail the date, time and duration of any 999 emergency call loss of service during 2015, 2014 and 2013?

2. Could you confirm whether following the loss of service on 25th July, BT have met or discussed this with Police Scotland, NHS, Fire & Rescue Service, MCA and HIAL?

3. Since 25th July has BT met and/or discussed the incident with the Scottish government?

4. Could BT clarify whether any other part of Scotland has lost 999 emergency call services at any time during 2015, 2014 or 2013?

5. Have the Scottish government or any of the emergency services asked BT to investigate a backup system that guarantees the emergency number service is always available anywhere in Scotland?

He has also written a letter to emergency services chiefs about the issue. These are chief constable of police Scotland Firemaster Alistair Hay, Inglis Lyon chief executive of HIAL, Neville Martin of Shetland Coastguard and Pauline Howie chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service.

In his letter Mr Scott states: “I understand that all the emergency services have a resilience plan. However, BT have so far not been able to explain what the back-up system is and whether it even exists.

“I am sure you share my concerns and those of my constituents about this situation. I understand that NHS Shetland had to ask BBC Radio Shetland to issue a public statement saying that if people were in need of urgent medical attention they were to travel directly to the Gilbert Bain Hospital.

“Even for allowing for the use of social media where some of Shetland retained broadband connections on the 25th, this is hardly an ideal reliance plan.

“I am not sure what would have happened had there been a house or business fire and the emergency 999 service was unavailable.”

Mr Scott said he also understood it was not the first time that Shetland has lost emergency call cover.
“I know Sumburgh Airport has had in the past restrictions imposed on aircraft movements as a result of communications failures outwith HIAL’s control.

“I have asked BT to provide a full written explanation as to what happened, what they are doing to ensure it does not occur again and whether they can guarantee that the emergency call service and communications will be available at all times. I await an answer.

“I assume that the emergency services and lifeline providers such as HIAL as an airport operator are doing the same. I have also raised this very serious situation with the Scottish government ministers.

“Were the same to happen in Glasgow I have no doubt that action would be very prompt. I do not therefore see why my constituents should be disadvantaged by geography, technology or any other reason.

“I would be grateful for your advice on what your organisation is doing to ensure that emergency calls can always be made and that there is a reliant, full back up that would be operational were a transmitter to fail again as happened on 25th July.”

About Adam Guest

Reporter for The Shetland Times. I have also worked as a senior news reporter at The Press and Journal, The Barnsley Chronicle and as a freelance reporter for The Doncaster Free Press. Alongside news reporting I specialise in music and sports journalism. Pork pie lover.

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3 comments

  1. Michael Garriock

    “The BT network serving Orkney and Shetland is designed……..with separate radio and sub-sea cable routes providing back-up for each other”.

    “….some traffic was found to be relying on Wideford for both the main and back-up paths”.

    Says it all, doesn’t it. Who designed that, a toddler?

    Reply
    • Chris Johnston

      Not a toddler, but someone (perhaps techically competent, perhaps not) who was ordered by a bean counter to cut cost.
      In the critical facilities world, BT Wideford Hill is called a single point of failure. The main communications path and the backup path pass through the same facility. Knock the facility down and both communications paths are lost.
      And you can be certain Wideford Hill is not the only single point of failure in BT’s facilities.

      Reply
      • James Muir

        It seems to me that this failure could easily have been avoided by BT making use of the appropriate diverse telecoms routes from Shetland and Orkney to / from mainland Scotland. For example, the FARICE optical fibre cable could cope easily with all telecoms and broadband traffic to / from Shetland if, say, BT configured their network to fallback to this option in the event of a major failure elsewhere. Also, the Freeview TV distribution system to the Northern Isles has two completely diverse routes running from Caithness to Bressay (one of which goes via Wideford Hill). As hinted by other comments, it certainly would seem that this failure can be put down to BT’s amateurish network configuration and penny pinching as there are viable near-failsafe alternatives available.

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