- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

The White House year-2000 office may have more technology than the standard office, but it still resembles most cubicle-filled spaces depicted in a Dilbert comic strip.

But a bit more is at stake here.

A group of 125 workers began gathering information from the 50 states, industry and countries across the world yesterday, the first day the Clinton administration's $50 million year-2000 information coordination center began monitoring the march toward 2000 and a technological threshold.

"We think [the operations center] is working well," said John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.

The group manning 125 computers yesterday in a room on the eighth floor of a nondescript building at 1800 G St. NW is the same that will be on duty at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

Security is tight at the operations center, and Mr. Koskinen's office has restricted access to all but those who will work in the high-tech center. The operations center is separated from the public by locked doors guarded by security personnel.

A small, glass-paneled room within the operations center and filled with more computers and digital maps showing global time zones are the only distinctive marks in the high-tech center. Desks in the center encircle the glass-paneled room, where the top officials from federal agencies and private industry will digest the reams of information flowing into the center.

Yesterday's effort to begin monitoring systems was no trial run, but it gave workers a chance to get acquainted with their surroundings without the ultimate deadline of midnight Jan. 1 looming overhead.

"People are seriously engaged in their work right now. They know it's not the rollover, but they know it's not a game either," said Janet Abrams, executive director of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion and Mr. Koskinen's second in command.

The year-2000 computer problem stems from a cost-saving shortcut in which software programmers devoted only two spaces in a date field to designate the year. That older software assumes the year always will begin with the digits 19. If technicians don't fix computers, they could shut down or malfunction when they "read" the digits 00 as meaning 1900 and not 2000.

People at the operations center monitoring computing systems worldwide will begin 24-hour-a-day tracking of those systems starting tomorrow.

Workers from all federal agencies and 10 industry groups like the North American Electric Reliability Council, a trade association representing electric utilities, are tracking computing systems from the center's own network of computers.

They are tracking the status of federal systems like the Social Security check-processing system and Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic control systems and privately operated computing systems running everything from the grid carrying electricity to homes to the network that carries phone calls.

States, federal agencies and industry groups have their own command centers where they will send information, Mr. Koskinen said. But once each command center acquires and interprets information, it will pass data along to the White House year-2000 operations center.

Because the center is collecting data on computing systems from around the world, the office has earned a reputation as the world's clearinghouse for year-2000 information.

But people in the operations center won't make policy decisions on responding to year-2000-related problems. Reports of problems will be shared with the White House and top government officials, who will decide how to respond to computer glitches.

"Everybody goes on line today, and we are asking them to comment on normal operations," Miss Abrams said.

That's intended to let the White House know how many computer-operated devices like automated teller machines are malfunctioning currently. With that information in hand, the operations center will know when to blame year-2000 computer problems for seizing ATMs and when to blame other operational failures for causing the machines to malfunction.

One percent to 2 percent of all ATMs are down at any one time, Mr. Koskinen said two weeks ago. But new information gathered this week will provide a more accurate picture of the number of money machines not working.

"By Thursday we should have a pretty good inventory of what's going on out there," Mr. Koskinen said at a press briefing Monday.

The first status reports are expected to be available today.

Workers at the operations center also are using the calm before the year-2000 storm to test computers there, Mr. Koskinen said.

The system was sluggish Dec. 3 while workers tested new computer equipment they installed at the operations center, Mr. Koskinen said, but the problem was fixed and a Dec. 8-9 "stress test" revealed problems that slowed the operation center's network were fixed.

That stress test may be nothing like the one workers in the operations center undergo as Friday turns to Saturday.

Despite that pressure, Miss Abrams said, people monitoring worldwide computing activity at the operations center feel they are part of something big.

"Even though it's graveyard duty, they know they will be able to experience the rollover," she said.

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