Y2K expert says stocking up now a good idea

March 09, 1999

Y2K expertBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A small clock on Capt. Bill R. Ashforth's desk at the U.S. Coast Guard facility near Martinsburg continues to tick down toward the date that is taking up an increasing amount of Ashforth's time.

Jan. 1, the first day of the Year 2000 - Y2K.

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What began last July with a briefing for senior Coast Guard officers has turned into a mounting number of requests for speaking engagements for a man who has become one of the area's leading experts on the Y2K issue.

"We assume everything we have right now will always be there, but can you imagine two weeks without fast food? We have a very big, very complex machine and people are counting on it to stay that way," said Ashforth.


The reality of the Y2K issue could be a different story, he said.

While the business, technical and political aspects of Y2K are important, Ashforth said the dimension of "interconnectedness" overshadows the other factors.

Power companies not only rely on telephone lines and satellites to control power transfers and generator plants but depend on automated trains to deliver the coal necessary to produce energy, he said.

Overlooked lines of computer code or outdated computer chips could throw off any step of that process with far-reaching results.

"If you look at any system, you have that interconnection, and we take that for granted," he said.

The Coast Guard facility in Martinsburg has spent more than two years troubleshooting the 33 computer systems involved with everything from search planning to global positioning for merchant vessels worldwide, said Ashforth.

The process is on track to be completed by the end of the month, but Ashforth's involvement with Y2K will continue.

An active member of the Y2K Shepherdstown group since last August, Ashforth has made more than 22 speeches to military audiences as well as area churches, colleges and community groups.

He said the most common question is, "What should I do?"

People want quick answers to a problem that will not be solved easily, he said.

"We don't know what's going to break or how it's going to break," said Ashforth, likening the impact on the global economy to the results from tossing a monkey wrench into a Swiss watch.

Rather than try to predict what exactly will happen, Ashforth said people should treat the situation as they would a hurricane or an ice storm that could knock out power for a week-long stretch.

Stockpiling food, batteries and other supplies are all good ideas, he said, adding people should not wait until December to prepare for the Year 2000.

Local governments all over America need to begin working together to prevent a fragmented response if and when emergency situations arise, Ashforth said.

"We have to ask how we as a community can take care of ourselves. People can accept interconnectedness, but I think people are uncomfortable with a sense of interdependence."

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