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Crowd presses to see whether bureaucracy ready for Y2K

March 21, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Representatives from the power, trucking and banking industries as well as state and local government tried to reassure anxious Washington County residents Saturday that the world will go on when Dec. 31 turns into Jan. 1, 2000.

By their numbers and their questions, the residents who showed up at Emmanuel Baptist Temple near Huyett's Crossroads west of Hagerstown Saturday evening demonstrated that fears about the so-called year 2000 computer problem are deep and wide.

About 200 people pressed the representatives for assurances that government and business are taking the potential Y2K problems seriously and are preparing backup plans in case a crisis does arise.

Some asked whether the state of Maryland and Washington County had plans to impose martial law if riots broke out. (They do not). Others asked if it were true that Allegheny Power has offered to sell power generators to their employees. (It doesn't).

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"What's going to happen? Well, I guess no one really knows," said Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook. "But we're all making preparations."

Snook said the county is spending almost $1.5 million to correct the Y2K problem, which arises from space-saving techniques computer programmers employed by abbreviated dates in two digit codes.

Many of those computers might shut down when they confuse 00 with 1900.

Snook said the county has a 25-person committee that has inventoried all systems that are susceptible to the millennium bug. In addition, 15 employees are working to repair and replace bad equipment.

The state government also has been working hard to ensure things run smoothly after New Year's Day, said Allison M. Albert, an aide to state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"It's a massive organizational and political problem," she said.

But, she added, unlike other disasters: "We know the exact time and exact date it will occur."

Albert said the state government has allocated $53 million in this budget year to fix the problem. The total price tag is likely to be as high as $100 million, she said.

Albert said state workers have made progress. For instance, about a quarter of the state's mainframes were Y2K compliant as of last December, she said.

Each agency is graded monthly on its Y2K progress. Those that fall behind schedule receive special attention, Albert said.

But Albert cautioned there is no easy fix.

"The only silver bullet is attention to the problem and adequate resources," she said.

Bob Cianelli, chief information officer for D.M. Bowman, said the Williamsport trucking firm has examined its entire supply chain in addition to prioritizing its own equipment. Since 80 percent of the nation's freight moves by truck, it is a vital sector, he said.

Cianelli said he is confident the trucking industry will not suffer severe disruptions.

He said Bowman has worked closely with its customers and the financial community. It is stocking extra supplies of fuel.

But Cianelli warned that the company could face disruptions if other segments of the economy fail. "If we lose power, we're out of business. It's that simple," he said.

That is not likely to happen though, Allegheny Power representative Bill Mann said.

Mann said the utility has made great progress; 96 percent of its "mission critical" systems have been fixed and tested. About 90 percent of its embedded chips also are ready, he said.

In addition, he said extra crews will be on hand Dec. 31 to deal with any unexpected problems.

Of all the industries facing Y2K issues, the banking industry is one of the furthest ahead, said a banking representative.

Virginia Dean, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, said only 17 out of 10,000 banks were given unsatisfactory remarks in a recent audit.

Because they are so heavily regulated, Dean said banks got an early start on the problem. Every bank must undergo three inspections related to the Y2K issue, she said.

The Federal Reserve Board also has taken steps to ensure that panic will not overrun the banking system. The Fed plans to pump an extra $50 billion into the banking system, Dean said.

So if you want to take out extra money, it will be there, Dean said. But she recommended customers leave it in the bank where it will be safe. She said she does not plan to withdraw extra cash and cautioned that it could invite crime.

Dean also urged people to take a balanced approach to the year 2000 problem.

"There are some very strange Web sites out there, reporting some very strange things," she said.

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