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Workers look back on Y2K

December 30, 2000

Workers look back on Y2K



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer


A few minutes after midnight last New Year's Eve, Dave Barnhart slipped his bank card into a Hagerstown automatic teller machine.

He breathed a sigh of relief upon the successful completion of his ATM transactions.

Barnhart, senior vice president of marketing for Hagerstown Trust, and Mark Harrell, senior vice president of retail banking, were on a New Year's 2000 mission to make sure Hagerstown Trust's ATM operation escaped Y2K unscathed, he said.

Y2K, the turn-of-the-millennium computer scare, was caused by pioneering computer programmers' decisions decades ago to use two digits to represent the year. The shortcut saved money on memory and storage, but also caused some computers to wrongly interpret 2000 as 1900.

"We were up to a pretty big challenge, and everything came through it very well," said Barnhart, who expected success on his midnight mission after months of preparation within the banking industry.

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This holiday, he'll keep his bank card in his wallet and celebrate the dawn of 2001 with his family.

This New Year's Eve "will be a little bit calmer for us - a little more flexible," Hagerstown City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

Last year as bank officials, key city employees, county workers and utility crews waited with bated breath at the Hagerstown Police Department's "Y2K Central Headquarters" and other locations throughout the Washington County for Y2K problems to surface. Left uncorrected, glitches could have caused malfunctions in computers that control everything from power grids and air traffic to banking systems and telephone networks.

City and county workers, bankers and energy brokers spent months preparing for the potential disaster.

High-tech consultants were hired to help install Y2K-compliant computer systems. Committees formed to develop emergency contingency plans. Public forums were held to share Y2K information. Power grids were tested and tested again.

"Mission critical" employees' holiday vacations were postponed until after the New Year.

Businesses and governments around the world devoted about $200 billion to the problem- and waited to see if their preparations worked.

Then 1999 turned to 2000.

And the lights stayed on. Planes remained in the sky. Bank cards, telephones and heating systems worked.

"The preparations we took, like everyone else, probably made Y2K the nonevent that it was," said Allen Staggers, manager of communications for Allegheny Energy.

The utility, which provides electricity to about 1.4 million customers in parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia, exhausted generous resources to avert Y2K-related power failures.

Allegheny Energy spent about $20 million and 80,000 employee hours to ensure that computer components vulnerable to the millennium bug were Y2K-compliant, company officials said.

Many utility employees' vacations and New Year's plans were canceled, and more than 1,000 workers staffed such key locations as power stations and service centers on New Year's Eve night, Staggers said.

To prepare for Y2K, the utility "erred on the side of caution," Staggers said.

He worked last New Year's Eve, but plans to spend this holiday in a more typical manner - relaxing with friends, he said.

After extensive preparations, county government systems also made it through Y2K without a glitch.

Robert Arch, director of the county planning commission, said the county's Y2K efforts reinforced the value of cooperation, preparedness and formulating solutions without panic - and the uncertainty of technology.

"No matter how good you think the technology is, there will be issues out there," Arch said.

The county paid about $1.5 million to purchase and install Year 2000-compliant software and hardware, including new accounting and payroll programs.

All county government computers and software were examined for problems, and the county sent thousands of letters to the vendors with which it does business, requiring them to make sure their hardware and software were Y2K-compliant.

The county also established communication systems that would work despite a computer shutdown, and required key personnel to work through last New Year's weekend.

Washington County Fire & Rescue Communications Chief Ron Karn rang in the last New Year at the dispatch headquarters, where everything went smoothly due to early preparations, he said.

Where will Karn celebrate this New Year's?

"Not at work," he said. "That's for sure."

City Light Department Manager Terry Weaver, who chaired the city's Y2K Oversight Committee, said he'll also be taking it easy this New Year's Eve after spending a major part of last year's holiday in Hagerstown's Y2K Central Headquarters.

"I'm glad that's over," Weaver said.

The City of Hagerstown spent about $1.5 million on equipment and software upgrades to get the city Y2K-ready. An inventory of all computer and electronic systems was compiled, and those systems were thoroughly tested.

Hagerstown's telephone network was overhauled, and Weaver and other city employees worked overtime to help pull Hagerstown though the Y2K scare.

It was a hassle, but Weaver said he believes the city's extensive Year 2000 preparations prevented any related problems.

"I think if we didn't do what we did to prepare for Y2K ... there would've been a problem," he said.

This New Year's Eve, the Y2K command post at the police station resumes its normal function as a second-floor conference room, and Weaver will kick back in front of his fireplace to watch Year 2001 celebrations on TV.

"I hope the real millennium, as some people are calling it, will be problem-free," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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