Y2K is here

"But should anyone care? Old fears about power outages, phone outages, bank collapses, etc., are overblown, officials in those industries say. But it's still not a bad idea to be prepared for a disaster -- whether it happens on New Year's Eve or not."

  • Wednesday, December 29, 1999 6:00am
  • News

“From Tuesday, Dec. 28 through Monday, Jan. 3, T. J. Harmon will anxiously wait for nothing to happen.As the director of Island County Emergency Services, Harmon will check out vital services, such as 911 dispatch, the hospital, telephones and electric power, as the county closes in on and then slips over into the year 2000. What she’s hoping not to see are breakdowns or failures due to what’s become known as the Y2K bug — the computer glitch that may make some computers roll back to 1900 when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. The bug exists because, until recently, some computer programmers used only two digits to specify the year in a date. At the time it was a way of saving precious computer memory and it’s been fine up through 1999 — or as it’s known to those older computers, just “99.” But when those computers come up to 2000, they may literally become confused and refuse to run certain programs. If the computers are connected to vital systems, things may start to fail. That’s the fear of Y2K.Individuals, companies and governments worldwide have spent billions of dollars checking out, upgrading or replacing computer hardware and software during the past few years in hopes of avoiding potential problems with Y2K. That goes for Whidbey Island too.“Everybody seems pretty comfortable,” Harmon said about the various systems we rely on. She doesn’t expect serious local trouble during the changeover. But since Harmon’s job is all about preparing for catastrophe, she’s trained to anticipate even the unexpected.“I’m not going to be surprised if we have some little problems,” she said.That’s partly because nobody is making any guarantees that everything is fixed. Most institutions such as the banks or utilities are tied into much larger systems that sometimes cross state and even country borders. So even if they think their own system is Y2K ready, they can’t speak for everyone else’s.Little problems may also crop up simply because that’s what problems do. Power outages, mechanical failures and computer breakdowns happen all the time, but people may be more sensitive to them if they occur on Jan. 1.One advantage we have here on Whidbey is that we’ll have a chance to watch numerous time zones tick over into 2000 before us. Harmon said she will keep an eye on what happens there as the millennial changeover makes its way across the globe.Whatever happens, or doesn’t happen, Harmon will report daily to the state’s Y2K Emergency Center in Olympia. Like everyone else, she now just has to wait and see.“Barring unforeseen glitches, I’ll probably cool my heels until Monday,” she said.ELECTRICITYPuget Sound Energy manager Karl Kirn said the company has spent about $14 million during the past three years to get ready for Y2K. Company technicians have been testing, retesting and changing out old equipment, he said, and a new Y2K-compliant system has been up and operating since the end of June. Corporate officials now feel pretty confident that the transition into the year 2000 will go smoothly. But.“There’s no guarantee that we’ve addressed all the possibilities in the system,” Kirn said.The company’s Y2K spokesperson Kristen Wappler said it’s important to remember that Puget Sound Energy is just a part of a much-larger power grid that stretches from Canada to Southern California. A power grid allows electricity to flow back and forth depending upon which areas need it the most. “If a Y2K issue were to occur on some other system in the grid, it could affect us,” Wappler said.That’s what happened back in 1965 when a single, hand-sized relay failure on the East Coast plunged 30 million people and 80,000 square miles, including New York City, into darkness. The failed relay caused massive amounts of electrical power to cascade from one part of the grid to another, tripping off safety systems as it went. The result was a total blackout.Because of such incidents, many individual systems on a grid now work more closely together. That’s the case with Puget Sound Energy this time. The company has been meeting with the Bonneville Power Administration and other grid members through an organization called the Western Systems Coordinating Council. It has also participated in nationwide drills where computer systems have their calenders artificially advanced to midnight on Dec. 31 to see how they do.“The good news is that all utilities say they’re ready,” said Wappler.That doesn’t mean the company will take the night off. In fact, Wappler said there will be about 350 extra staff people on duty. Many have been trained to manually switch over to human-activated systems if computers fail.Kirn said equipment breakdowns are a way of life. He said Whidbey falls victim to some degree of power outage every day. Some are large, but most are small and easily repaired.“My greatest fear is that we’re going to have an outage and someone will think it’s Y2K related,” he said.Wappler agreed saying that Y2K is no longer the top concern for the utility.“Frankly, we’re more worried that there will be a windstorm that night,” she said.Any power problems can be reported to Puget Sound Energy at 1-888-225-5773.TELEPHONEWith the increased use of the Internet and other forms of data transmission, telephone lines aren’t just for voice communication anymore. The two major systems on Whidbey, GTE and Whidbey Telephone, both say they will be ready for the new year.Dave Henny of Whidbey Telephone said all the company’s switching systems are now Y2K compliant and he suspects it will function properly.“In our industry there has been a lot of energy focused on this,” Henny said this week.GTE reports that all of its local and long-distance circuits, wireless telephone, cable networks and Internet services have been checked out and should provide uninterrupted service into the New Year.However, GTE spokesperson Marilyn Hoggarth said the company is concerned about the possibility that too many people may want to make a phone call right at the stroke of midnight. Though the system is equipped to handle peak periods, dial tones may be delayed or temporarily unavailable she said. If you pick up the phone and don’t immediately get a dial tone, GTE suggests that you not hang up but simply stay on the line for a few seconds to see if a line clears.“That goes for being online too,” Hoggarth said. “People don’t always associate that with phone use.” Henny said even a surge of customers at the stroke of 12 shouldn’t be a big problem.“It doesn’t worry me,” he said.Phone customers might experience some problems calling other countries where Y2K compliancy hasn’t been a high priority, Hoggarth said.“We’re confident about North America, Western Europe and Israel,” she said. But Eastern Europe, India, Africa and South America remain a question. “We can’t speak for them. They’re an unknown at this point.”In some instances, Hoggarth said, telephone systems in those countries predate computers so they won’t be affected by the Y2K bug. Others however are modern but are in private or semi-private ownership where upgrades may or may not have been completed. She suggests anyone needing to contact family or businesses in other countries should make contingency plans now in case problems crop up later.HOSPITALWhidbey General Hospital has been Y2K-ready for about a year, hospital spokesman Doug Bishop said. But it was a big job.“A lot of high-tech medical equipment has computer chips that all had to be looked at,” he said. In most cases, the equipment was either upgraded or replaced.Just the same, the hospital has made contingency plans and its staff will be beefed up over the holiday. That’s due in part to Y2K, but mainly because the New Year weekend usually brings an increase in accidents and emergency cases through the doors.Bishop said hospital administrators will also be on duty through the weekend.“We’ll be there celebrating with the patients,” he said. “We’ll be watching just like everyone else.”SCHOOLSSchools are closed this week for winter vacation, but school administrators say most everything should restart Monday without problems. In Coupeville, school district business director Nancy Conard said all data processing, financial and student record systems have been made compliant. She said computer controls that operate school heating and air conditioning systems should work fine, but can be controlled manually if they do not.Bruce Worley, Oak Harbor School District’s director of business and operations, told the district’s school board recently that all critical systems will be operational when students return next week. He said a few older classroom computers may fail the Y2K test, but will likely still be usable. The worst that can happen with them is that they may simply put the wrong date on computer documents.BANKSWhen the Y2K issue first became general knowledge, great public concern was expressed over the potential collapse of the world’s financial systems which rely heavily on computer transactions. Today, bank officials say it won’t happen.“We’re all ready to go,” said Mike Cann, president and CEO of Whidbey Island Bank. “I feel very good. The banking world is one of the best prepared out there.”Other local banks and credit unions have said the same. Though some Y2K-disaster theorists have suggested that people remove their money from banks, Cann said he has seen little of that.“I could count the number on one hand,” he said. “Most people are taking a common sense approach. Banks are still the safest place for people’s money.”Like Puget Sound Energy, banks are concerned that minor, common breakdowns might be misconstrued as Y2K glitches. Cann said at any one time about 5 to 10 percent of automated teller machines (ATMs) are not functioning. Finding a machine that’s down doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a major problem he said.In case of ATM failures, many banks have contingency plans to open drive-up windows. Making plans is one of the side benefits of Y2K, Cann said.“It’s made everyone sit down and take a look at their operating systems and their computers. There’s some positive that has come out of this,” he said.FERRIESWashington State Ferries expects to be operating all regular routes and schedules Jan. 1. According to the most recent information released by the state agency, any boats that may encounter problems will be replaced by others in the fleet.The ferries Cathlamet, Kittitas, and Klickitat that currently serve Whidbey all use analog electronic propulsion control systems that are not susceptible to the Y2K bug.Passengers may see some delays between 10 p.m. Dec. 31 and 4 a.m. Jan. 1 while ferry employees test vessel and dock systems to verify their readiness. POLICECounty sheriff’s patrols, as well as state and local police, will be out in force over the weekend. That’s not unusual, Island County Sheriff’s spokesperson Jan Smith said. Their main goal will be to watch for drunk driving, not computer failures.“We’ll have an increased number of officers out on patrol,” Smith said. In addition to DUI cases, Smith said they also expect to get a number of calls about loud parties and illegal use of fireworks.Coupeville Town Marshall Lenny Marlborough added that alcohol-related problems such as domestic abuse also increase around the holiday.The local 911-emergency system, known as ICOM, is also technologically ready for the new year. But officials warn against improper use of 911 over the holiday weekend. Marlborough said there is some concern that people may call the emergency number just to check on how things are going or to see if it works. 911 calls are for police, fire and medical emergencies only. Non-emergency calls to report problems or call for assistance should go to 769-9567.”

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