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Local women formulate plan to raise awareness

Y2K 101 ...

January 30, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Who would have thought two digits could ground an airplane? That a calendar date could halt a train, freeze a fax or keep the toilet from flushing?

Pioneering computer programmers didn't.

To save storage space, and cut the expense of writing billions of lines of code for large mainframe computers, programmers allocated only two digits to a year.

Microchip producers took the same shortcut years later.

With each day closer to the millennium, the threat of Year 2000 date errors disrupting nearly every aspect of computer-age society grows exponentially, according to technological experts.

Some say what began as a technological error may develop into the computer-generated nightmare known as Y2K. If the "Millennial Bug" bites, its sting may be felt in all but the poorest and most remote areas of the globe.

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Two women at Hagerstown Community College are hoping to prepare the community for the potential Y2K crisis by holding workshops to make the area more aware of the problem.

"It's like living on the Florida coast, you prepare for hurricanes," said Mary Collins, director of computing and networking services at HCC. "But we don't even know what the hurricane is," she added.

With Public Information Officer Patricia Churchey, Collins is formulating a plan to use HCC as a platform to raise Year 2000 awareness, and develop community-based strategic action plans.

"My vision is to get information out, so if there's a problem, we can solve it as a community, and individuals won't get hurt," Collins said. "If people understand what's happening, we can prevent potential catastrophes."

Because the business and computing worlds didn't begin to fix the date problem early enough, 50 percent of American businesses may have computer-related failures, according to the Gartner Group, a computer industry research group.

And the U.S. joins a handful of nations leading the world in Y2K compliance, according to the group.

Collins said the computer industry has been looking at the problem for 10 years, but that Y2K didn't gain widespread attention until the concrete deadline- Jan. 1, 2000- loomed dead ahead.

"Now, it's today's news," she said.

Consultants in demand

Y2K consultants are in huge demand, Collins said. Their pay grows in tandem with the time-sensitive urgency to fix the estimated 180 billion lines of faulty code worldwide.

The Year 2000 problem price tag is $4 trillion globally, according to statistics from the Gartner Group. But even $4 trillion can't buy more time or qualified people to erase the threat of Y2K.

Collins said this is one problem that technology will not solve completely, or in time, to avoid disruptions.

"Make sure you have your January schedule in your daytimer," she said.

That's why Collins said she enlisted Churchey's aid to capitalize on the college's commitment to education to address Y2K and potential societal impacts in a series of public forums.

"Communities create solutions, as long as they start early enough," said Collins. "We want to prepare, not react," she said.

Churchey said HCC's established associations with childcare, medical, fire, law enforcement and other community groups makes it a valuable venue for Y2K planning.

Collins said the region's tri-state layout could offer human resources and an extended network of task force groups.

"We want to bring the community hither to discuss the issue without politics or small-turf battles," she said.

Churchey and Collins agree their greatest hurdle will be raising awareness without panic.

"Anytime there's an opportunity for panic or fear, there's an opportunity for education," said Churchey. "That's what the college is here to do, to educate," she said.

The HCC forums will address the potential scope of the problem through information sharing, and "increase understanding of how communities overlap," Collins said.

Dependent on computers

She said people don't realize how dependent they are on computers. Computerized systems run everything from defense systems to trains to pacemakers," Collins said.

"If business fails, the community fails," she said.

Though Y2K consultants are working to fix the problem, the Gartner Group predicts 11 percent of vendors will experience disruptions when fiscal year systems begin to occur and testing begins between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, 1999.

The group predicts 30 to 50 percent of vendors worldwide - 15 percent of U.S. vendors - will experience a "mission critical failure" between July 1999 and March 2000. Another 10 percent of vendors are expected to experience system failures within the first 12 months of the new century; and still 11 percent will remain non-compliant throughout 2001, according to the group.

Collins said she has been discussing Y2K within the campus' computer community, and "the first thing people ask is, 'What about me?,'" she said.

Everything from ATMs to VCRs rely on computer technology.

"Everything we do in the computer industry affects the society we live in," Collins said.

After raising awareness about these issues, Collins and Churchey said they expect task force groups to form to tackle specific community concerns. As the initiative is still in the planning stages, the duo brainstormed.

The college's continuing education commission could serve as a link to certain populations, Churchey said.

Existing community groups could provide valuable resources, Collins said.

"We don't have to start from ground zero," she said. "There are groups, like the Shepherdstown Committee, that have a forward-thinking, big-picture mentality."

Due to the time element, Churchey and Collins said they hope to host the first Y2K forum the first or second weekend in March.

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