Fire destroys WVIA transmitter, building; still station benefits from goodwill, good fortune

A fire destroyed the transmission facility of public broadcaster WVIA-TV licensed to Scranton, PA, Feb. 12, and consumed the contents of the structure with an estimated value exceeding $1 million. No one was injured in the incident.

According to station VP of engineering Joe Glynn, the blaze erupted between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. as contractors hired to remove the station’s old analog transmission equipment were finishing up the day to make room for new backup generators.

“There was a big arc, and the lights went out,” he said.

Glynn who was working in an adjacent room at the time rushed to the area where the contractors had been working to find flames leaping to the rafters.

“The fire extinguishers didn’t help,” he said. “We tried to get to the disconnect, but it was behind this unit (engulfed in flames.) We had to evacuate because of the heavy smoke.”

By the time firefighters arrived at Penobscot Knob, the location of the transmitter building about 20 miles southwest of Scranton, the building was beyond saving, he said.

The arc responsible for the blaze apparently occurred when the contractors closed the door on a voltage regulator, he said. The fire took WVIA-TV and FM off the air as well as a translator station owned by religious broadcaster Family Life operating from the same building.

WVIA-TV was back on air the next day with the help of WNEP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Scranton.

“WNEP-TV had vacated its Channel 49 facility and moved to Channel 50, where it’s been operating since the DTV transition,” Glynn said. “Their Channel 49 transmitter was just sitting there doing nothing.”

WNEP offered WVIA use of the transmitter. After receiving and installing new STL equipment from Nucomm Feb. 13, WVIA-TV was back on air. The new transmission facility allows WNEP to reach 95 percent of the coverage area it served before the fire.

“WNEP’s antenna delivers 159KW ERP, and we were at 171KW ERP,” Glynn said.

WVIA plans to rebuild its transmission infrastructure, but that could take more than a year.

The station’s immediate FM recovery has been a different story, he added. WVIA-FM is back on air with a few watts of power thanks to help from another local radio broadcaster. A new FM transmitter is due to arrive this week, and Glynn said he is hopeful it will be installed and operational by the end of the week.

For Glynn, who’s been a broadcast engineer for 31 years, there are two aspects of the fire that he regards as bright spots.

“First, no one was hurt,” he said. “Second, the response of management and engineering staffs here in the broadcast community has shown these are wonderful, great people. The broadcasters here are the best people you could ever find.”

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.