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Seminar warns of coming computer crisis

June 04, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Officials at Beaver Mechanical Contractors aren't burying their heads in the sand about potential computer problems starting Jan. 1, 2000.

The Hagerstown company is replacing its customized computer system with a system equipped for the new millennium, said Vice President Tim Bryan.

The company wants to start testing its new computer system for date-related glitches by the end of this year, according to Bryan, who said it also might invest in new security and telephone systems.

Ensuring the systems can handle dates beyond Dec. 31, 1999, is necessary if the company to keep operating when the calendar flips to 2000, he said.

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The company has a lot more to do to protect itself from "Year 2000" mayhem, including making sure its suppliers are ready so their products both comply and keep coming in time to finish jobs, Bryan learned Wednesday at a seminar on the global dilemma for local business people.

The problem really began in the 1960s and 1970s, when computers were large, expensive systems confined to businesses and governments. To save space and money, dates were abbreviated to six-digit codes using only the last two digits of the year.

That's no problem until Jan. 1, 2000, when the machines could identify 2000, listed as 00 in their code, as 1900 and lock up or malfunction.

More than 100 local business people signed up for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce seminar, co-sponsored by Hagerstown Trust Co. and The Herald-Mail Co.

Expert speakers used sobering scenarios - worldwide recession, power blackouts, gas and grocery shortages, grounded air traffic, Social Security checks on hold and business people locked out of their own offices and computer systems - to stress the importance of timely action.

"This is a real dangerous situation, folks," said Bob Cohen, vice president of communications for Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va., trade association that has been lobbying for government action on the issue for several years.

The more obvious potential culprits are computerized business information systems that control things like accounting records, payroll and automated manufacturing systems, as well as data exchange systems, Cohen said.

But the real nightmare won't be your "typical computers," he said.

It will be the billions of less obvious "embedded systems" that use a real-time clock to perform various functions, from automatically turning a machine on and off to monitoring a system's performance and signaling another system if there's a problem, Cohen said.

Those systems, governing things like hospital ventilation systems, air traffic control systems and automated teller machines, represent roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of the Year 2000 problem, he said.

Many are in remote locations - on miles and miles of gasoline pipeline, in space on satellites, under the ocean on oil rigs, Cohen said.

There are litigation risks related to Year 2000 problems, said lawyer Sophie D. Goetz, whose firm has been focusing on the Year 2000 for the past 2 1/2 years.

They run the gamut from a breach of contract claim if a building's security system locks out a tenant and keeps him from doing business to potential criminal and civil penalties for environmental infractions if a sewage system valve opens when it shouldn't and releases raw sewage, Goetz said.

The onus is on a company's board of directors and senior management to address potential problems, she said.

Companies must examine all contracts, including insurance policies and warranties, and talk to their insurance companies, vendors and software providers about Year 2000 concerns, Goetz said.

While her company is preparing for its own Y2K problems, seminar-goer K. Sue Wright said she worries about local clients, small- and medium-sized businesses, many of which don't have the resources to dedicate to the problem.

Their failures would devastate the local economy, said Wright, manager of computer and accounting services at Albright Crumbacker Harrell & Moul certified public accountants and business consultants.

The scope of the problem is mind-boggling, she said.

"No matter how diligent we are at preparing, there are still going to be so many external issues we are trying to address but still may not be able to address," Wright said.

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