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Collapse Of Towers Leaves North Adams Without Cell Service

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A pair of cellphone and radio towers knocked down over the weekend left many in the North Adams region without service.

A 160-foot and a 150-foot tower are both completely destroyed, according to Cory Thurston, who owns the North Adams Tower Company. While there were gusts of more than 50 mph late Saturday night and early Sunday, Thurston doesn’t see that as the main cause.

“In my opinion, these towers are supposed to be designed to take that and we’ve had gusts like this in past and a lot of other worse weather conditions that they’ve survived through,” said Thurston.                

The shorter tower, built in 1988, is used by Verizon Wireless, AT&T andSprint for cellphone service, while the other, built in 1963, is used by Gamma Broadcasting and New England Public Radio to send out their respective signals. Private companies and regional emergency services also send signals from antennas on the towers. Peter Judge is a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA.

“Radio communication among the North Adams police, fire, and EMS also went down. We immediately dispatched some of our folks as well as state police folks out to the North Adams area in which they essentially did some workarounds,” Judge said. “Bringing a cache of radios as well as their own backup, portable tower.”

All communication between the area’s emergency personnel has been restored. Todd Lee is the operations manager for Gamma Broadcasting.

“What they’re doing is mounting a temporary antenna on the side of the building there which gets WUPE 100.1FM back on the air mostly in the North Adams area,” Lee said. “We are broadcasting at a really decreased power, about 300 watts compared to 1,200 that we normally are.”

Lee says the station signal from the tower usually reaches Pittsfield, but it’s only reaching Adams right now. A Verizon spokesman says the company is testing its portable cell site near the spot where the towers fell. A spokesman for AT&T says the company hopes to have at least one portable tower in place to provide service as soon as Monday night. A Sprint spokesman says the company is hoping for the same in the next day for its phone and broadband customers. Judge says MEMA has a handful of COWs, or communications on wheels, strategically placed across the state.  He adds situations with cell phone service interruptions are nothing new and aren’t even that rare.

“At the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, cell service went down just simply because of overloading the system,” Judge said. “Essentially they are designed with about 25 percent use at any particular time. If you’re at the center of any disaster, you look around and everybody is on their phone at that point.”

Thurston says there are cell sites in Adams and Williamstown that allow people in the surrounding areas to pick up signals. Thurston says he’s not sure if his company will build a single new tower or two, but optimistically hopes for a multi-month long timetable.

Meanwhile, in Saratoga County in New York, the sheriff’s department is experiencing issues with its 911 emergency phone capacity. Chief Richard Castle says Sunday night the department realized it was not receiving incoming calls and couldn’t make outgoing ones on its 10 lines.

“We only have half of our available 911 lines currently live,” Castle said. “That still leaves us with the ability to answer five simultaneous incoming 911 calls. Anything above and beyond that is automatically being routed to either Warren or Washington counties.”

All other phone lines are working normally at the department. Castle says Verizon is removing an underground cable to fix the issue, but when that will be is not known.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org