Low-flying choppers prompt telephone alert to GJ residents

A heads-up Monday regarding low-flying helicopters went awry.

The Grand Junction Police Department’s new public safety alert system did what it was designed to do and called 50,000 residents at 8:18 a.m. The message alerted residents that low-flying helicopters would be in the Grand Valley June 23 and 24 to inspect high-pressure gas lines for Xcel Energy and asked them not to call 911.

The calls went to those who had subscribed to the new alert service that sends messages to residents via land line phones, cell phones and e-mails. The recorded message asked people to push No. 1 on their telephone key pad after a voice says this is a message from the Grand Junction Regional Communications Center.

Instead, many residents took the call as a prompting to call 911.

“We had about 400 people call,” said Kate Porras, police spokeswoman. “But considering it reached 50,000 people, that’s not too bad.”

It also sparked calls to Xcel, which was receiving about five calls an hour, said Fred Eggleston, Xcel spokesman.

It was the first time the new system was put through its paces.

“I thought the message the city put out was absolutely clear,” Eggleston said. “This is the first time the city sent a message out to this many people, so it is really showing the new technology the city has works.”

Eggleston and Porras said the city needs to do a better job educating people about the system.

“Did everything go perfectly? No, it didn’t, but it did allow us to get a message out and it showed us what things we need to take into consideration for next time,” Porras said. “It takes people one step closer to getting comfortable with this system and how it works.”

This will be the second year Xcel uses a helicopter to inspect gas lines. In years prior Xcel crews had to walk every mile of gas line.

“Last year it generated a bunch of calls,” Eggleston said.

The helicopter flies low, about 75 feet off the ground. Equipment attached to its underbelly can detect minute amounts of gas. Trouble spots are then mapped and ground crews are sent out to inspect the line, Eggleston said.


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