SPENCER – The fire that destroyed the First Congregational Church on June 2, 2023 was still burning when residents standing on Route 9 watching the blaze began to notice their cell phones weren’t working.
Soon an explanation made its way through the crowd: the church spire had contained a cell tower servicing customers of Verizon and AT&T. When the steeple fell during the lightning-sparked fire, cell service ceased, officials said.
Before the blaze was extinguished, a temporary service for first responders was up and running at the shuttered Lake Street School but service for the general public could take time to restore, Edware Pare, an attorney for AT&T explained to Selectboard members at their July 10, 2023 meeting.
Initially, AT&T planned to locate a temporary tower on the site where the church stood. They even delivered a monopole to erect, but that has proven difficult because of the close proximity to other buildings, Pare explained.
The cell tower inside the church was an important part of the cellular network along Spencer’s Main Street and handled about 135,000 calls a month, according to Pare. The average data usage each month was equal to nearly 20,000 hours of movies or more than 12,500 one-hour Zoom calls, he said.
“That’s a lot of data, a lot of traffic moving through that facility and basically it’s been shut down since the fire,” Pare said.
The cell tower site hosted the FirstNet service which is used by emergency personnel, Pare said. A small, temporary cell on wheels called a COW, which has allowed the town to continue FirstNet emergency communications, was set up at Lake Street School.
Verizon has also set up a small temporary facility at Lake Street.
Pare said the hope is to set up a 125-foot tall monopole at the former school so that service could be restored. The setup would be temporary while representatives from AT&T seek out a new permanent location and that process includes working with the church to determine if the cell towers could be placed on a new building.
Harold Carlson, the First Congregational Church Moderator, said because the church was constructed on ledge, reconstruction could prove challenging.
Another church member told Selectmen a rebuild, under perfect circumstances, could take 2 years.
Selectboard member Ralph Hicks said he’s hoping the church can find a way to rebuild.
“I hope it’s rebuilt, I really do,” Hicks said. “Within an hour part of Spencer’s history and spirituality were lost.”
The Lake Street site is being designed so as not to impede the planned demolition of the building. Selectmen warned that vandalism has been an issue with the shuttered school and they urged Pare to be sure security and fencing on the site are secure.
Pare said the company knows immediately if someone is tampering with the equipment at a site. He explained the area would be fenced with other security measures in place.
Without additional permits the temporary monopole at Lake Street wouldn’t be allowed for more than 180 days, officials said, though there is a process to seek an extension.
Pare said the cost of utilizing a temporary setup is expensive and finding a permanent site is preferred.
Selectmen gave the proposal their approval but AT&T will need a building permit and inspections before the tower is operational.