- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

No natural disaster has mobilized the network of emergency management agencies nationwide quite like the threat of technological disaster that's known as the year-2000 computer glitch.
States, counties, cities and towns, private companies and federal agencies Friday are barricaded inside 24-hour-a-day command centers to monitor the effect of the year-2000 glitch on their computing systems and on services those systems support.
Outside the command centers, police officers from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia will be doing everything from running sobriety checkpoints to patrolling crowds on the National Mall.
"I've been in this business for 11 years and I have not seen a mobilization like this for anything," said David McMillion, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and head of the command post in Reisterstown where state officials will monitor the effects of the date change.
Though mobilization has taken place on a massive scale, the year-2000 computer problem which a year ago was foreseen as a potentially paralyzing event on a massive scale has been downgraded to presenting a threat of minor disruptions.
"I think from the standpoint of the public … the glitches that occur, and there will be some that occur throughout the first several weeks and even the first few months of the year 2000, are going to rapidly fall back into the category of normal problems people have to deal with," John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said recently.
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." Beginning at midnight, computers that were not fixed may shut down or malfunction when they interpret the digits "00" as meaning 1900 and not 2000.
But the repairs have been taking place on a massive scale over the past year in most countries, including the United States.
It seems clear that airliners won't be falling out of the skies, not least because many will be parked empty on the tarmac as revelers shun travel and celebrate the year 2000 at home.
Asia, where the year 2000 will arrive before noon Eastern Standard Time Friday, may provide a measure of how widespread problems will be worldwide. But what happens there will not necessarily signal problems in the West.
"This hits part of the world that has done least first," said computer industry consultant Peter de Jager, who has spent six years traveling the world warning about the potential problem.
"I'm not worried by New Zealand or Australia. I'm a bit more worried by Japan, but I am more concerned about the rest of the Far East. The worst prepared come first. I wish that for one evening, the Earth would rotate the other way," Mr. de Jager told Reuters news agency.
Gartner Groups, an information technology research firm in Stamford, Conn., said the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands were best prepared. Russia, former Soviet states, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of central and western Africa were laggards.
Locally, public officials and agencies are preparing on a grand scale with about 19,650 police and military officers on the job.
An estimated 15,000 police officers, sheriff's deputies and troopers will be on duty statewide in Maryland, said David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police.
That visibility will be important, he said.
"Nothing creates greater calm than having troopers on patrol. I think it's reassuring," Mr. Mitchell said.
Metropolitan Police will have 2,800 officers on duty from 7 p.m. today to 7 a.m. tomorrow. That's about 80 percent of the District department's force.
Col. Wayne Huggins, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said he will have 1,400 officers working at midnight tonight.
The Maryland National Guard will have 450 of its 8,200 soldiers on duty today to assist local law enforcement officers, spokesman Capt. Drew Sullins said.
Federal, state and local command centers will serve as information clearinghouses.
Data from all 50 states, private industry and U.S. embassies abroad will flow into the White House's $50 million information center, near the World Bank in the District.
Maryland has 25 regional centers and a main command post run by the state emergency management agency at Camp Fretterd, the Reisterstown Maryland National Guard installation.
About 70 government and industry officials will staff the center beginning at noon Friday in three eight-hour shifts.
The District's command center will operate out of its emergency management agency facility at 14th and U streets. Officials from the Defense Department, the FBI, State Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be on hand to help coordinate response to any threats.
Virginia will run its Emergency Operations Center 24 hours a day beginning Friday outside Richmond, with about 100 state officials at a time working in 12-hour shifts.
"I think the combined number of public safety officials will be the largest number of people that's ever been on duty or on standby at any one time in the history of the state of Virginia," said George Foresman, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Services.
But the mobilization would have been larger if companies and government agencies had not done the computer remediation work they did and if people had not informed themselves about the year-2000 glitch, Mr. Foresman said.
"If Y2K had happened 18 months ago, we would see entire city and county governments working in command centers," he said.
The preparedness still is staggering.
FEMA has opened 10 regional centers to monitor problems in the United States and its territories. The agency put its emergency support team in place yesterday, and it will remain in place 24 hours a day through Sunday, with about 800 people working this weekend.
The Federal Reserve, State Department, Department of Energy and Department of Treasury are among the other federal agencies with command centers operating.
Private industry also will have workers on the clock to help resolve any computer problems.
More than half of Potomac Electric Power Co.'s 3,700 employees will work on New Year's Eve during the date change.
Electric companies are increasing holiday work forces even though Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Dec. 16 the nation's utilities are ready for the rollover and have contingency plans in place.
Virginia Power will have about 1,300 people working New Year's Eve at 90 locations. Baltimore Gas and Electric will have 1,500 people on duty, three times more workers than are typically on duty.
Consumers don't seem to be mobilizing quite like private and public sector agencies.
Mr. Koskinen said at a press conference yesterday he remains convinced people are not hoarding groceries, gasoline or money.
"As a general matter, there are no reports of any changes of any significance in consumer buying habits in either food, pharmaceuticals or gasoline at this stage, as we're in the last day before the world starts rolling into the new millennium," he said.
At local stores, bottled water and batteries were flying off the shelves. A manager at the Van Ness Giant said nonperishable milk was also popular.
Grocery Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Lisa McCue said the higher demand for water hasn't caused a shortage because the industry was prepared for it.
Derrick Hern, manager of a Mobil gas station at 15th and U Streets NW, said customers seemed evenly divided when it came to anticipating problems.
"Some people are worried about it, they're buying gas cans, milk. The other half, they don't care," he said.
And it's business as usual at local banks.
Rick Bowman, chief financial officer for First Virginia Banks Inc. of Falls Church, said high-amount withdrawals have been the exception.
"It's been a total nonevent. We're geared up for it in case people do come," he said. "There's no heavier activity than normal for this time of year."
School districts in the region, except D.C. schools, say they are about as ready as possible. The District's year-2000 officials did not return calls for comment.
Classes are not scheduled to resume until Tuesday in most districts, although administrators and technicians will be staffing command centers Saturday to check on power, security and other operations.
The potential for year-2000 problems will put the brakes on Metro service for 10 minutes.
All trains will stop at Metro platforms with their doors open from 11:55 p.m. tonight to 12:05 a.m. tomorrow to ensure they aren't forced to stop between stations due to an electrical outage, spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said.
The same concern will stop some rides at Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif.
Most Disneyland attractions will be open through midnight, but the park is not entirely free of year-2000 worries. Park spokesman Tom Brocato said the 44-year-old Peter Pan ride in Fantasyland runs on an elevator system and will be shut for 30 minutes starting at 11:45 p.m. as a precaution.

Julie Hyman and Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this report.

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