Fears after phone blackout

No mobile phone signal in the Ettrick Valley.
No mobile phone signal in the Ettrick Valley.

A TRAGEDY just waiting to happen – the verdict after the apparent accidental slicing of a phone cable saw residents of the Ettrick Valley unable to contact anyone outwith the area for 24 hours.

With mobile phone coverage non-existent once you are past the Selkirk to Ettrickbridge stretch of the B7009, valley residents are saying it is just sheer luck that no-one needed to use a landline phone to call in an emergency for the 24-hour period from lunchtime last Thursday onwards.

According to Cossarhill resident, Ogilvie Jackson, it was a contractor accidentally cutting through the cable at the Ettrick Valley exchange, located at Newburgh, which caused the problem.

For years, representatives of Ettrick valley communities have been campaigning for improved mobile phone coverage and this latest incident, they say, highlights the issue’s vital importance.

Several years ago Mr Jackson’s wife, local community councillor Daphne Jackson, together with Scottish Borders councillor Vicky Davidson (Selkirkshire, LD) even attended a session of the Scottish Parliament to push the case for improved mobile phone links for rural parts of Scotland like the valley.

Mr Jackson said the phone companies were only alerted to last week’s problem after a neighbouring farmer drove to the Yarrow Valley, which has mobile coverage, and called in the problem.

And he says it is “only by the grace of God” that there had been no need for someone to call the police or the other emergency services during the landline blackout.

“We have no mobile phone coverage in this valley and without landline communication, it meant around 100 households were totally cut off. It was a very strange feeling to realise that,” he told TheSouthern this week.

He went on: “If the weather had been as bad as just a few days previously and there had been an emergency, then we could have had a tragedy on our hands because there would be no way of getting word through.

“There are some very elderly people, some on medication, who now live in the valley.

“And there are a lot of other people who now live here who are not indigenous – by that I mean people who are not used to being cut off and completely isolated in the countryside and able to deal with that in the way ‘old timers’ like farmers, forestry workers and others are used to doing.

“BT was only alerted when a neighbouring farmer, Richard Scott, from Cacrabank, drove to the Yarrow Valley where he could get a mobile phone signal.

“This has never happened before and something has to be done about improving the mobile phone links for this area before there is a real catastrophe.”

Councillor Davidson said there are two masts at the top of the valley which are restricted to use by the emergency services, but, she added: “It seems a bit strange that the emergency services can speak to each other but we can’t contact them to alert them to an emergency in the first place.”

She told us: “There have been huge problems with landlines over the years – not long ago there was a three-week period when people at the top of the valley had no phone link at all.

“This time everyone served by the Ettrick exchange was affected, but, oddly, some of us could speak to other people in the valley, but nobody could call anyone outside it.”

Ms Davidson added that the council emergency planning officer, Jim Fraser, was scheduled to meet with one mobile phone company in the near future to discuss the issue.

“I think the plan is to approach them all and push for better mobile coverage,” she said.“There is government money available, but we are waiting to hear how this will be used.”

Mr Fraser told TheSouthern it was very rare for the entire phone network to go down, but that is why the ‘Bluelight’ scheme had been created, whereby a police officer or other emergency services personnel can be stationed in a community and provide a radio link to call for assistance in the case of problems.

However, the Bluelight initiative was not enacted last week as the phone companies did not alert the local authority to the situation and it was only when Scottish Power contacted the council much later that it had a phone problem that the council became aware of the matter.

Mr Fraser is currently involved in the compiling of a plan for the Ettrick Valley as part of the resilient communities scheme, whereby local volunteers are on standby to provide assistance at times of difficulty, including the loss of communications.