Fact or fiction: preparing for Y2K

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | February 24, 1999

WASHINGTON (Feb. 24, 1999) -- If predictions about "the Y2K bug" -- the

computer-related problems that may occur when systems roll over from 1999

to the year 2000 -- vary vastly, recommendations from disaster response

organizations are reassuringly familiar.

Many faith-based groups, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),

and the American Red Cross, are all issuing similar guidelines to people

increasingly concerned about the new millennium: store enough food and

water for several days, make plans for possible power outages and phone

system disruptions, and prepare to help vulnerable populations like the

elderly or ill. Many of these precautions are identical to those issued

prior to any type of potential disaster.

But unlike other disasters, the world has plenty of notice -- and plenty of

time for forecasts about life after December 31, 1999. Predictions run the

gamut from barely noticeable computer glitches, to widespread power outages

and disrupted food supplies, to a crashing worldwide economy, to the

extreme "end of the world as we know it."

"The media hype can only increase as we move through the year," said Bob

Barnes, a Church World Service disaster response specialist. "The stories

grow more dramatic. We're trying to offer some practical guidelines on how

to prepare, as well as some information that defines Y2K and some of the

possible problems."

Church World Service, representing faith-based disaster response

organizations worldwide, disseminates Y2K information, including a linked

"Citizen's Action Guide," through its website (www.churchworldservice.org).

The public demand for information has sharply increased as publicity about

Y2K becomes more visible, said Cyndi Wright, an American Red Cross public

relations specialist who is helping to distribute an information brochure

about Y2K. "After a story in the local press, we received requests for more

than 300 brochures in the past two weeks," she said. "I imagine the need

for information will become even more urgent."

Quelling rising public anxiety through education and outreach has become

another goal for disaster response organizations and FEMA alike. Response

leaders are concerned that fear of the unknown may cause people to

overreact. "The experts confidently say 'we don't know what will happen.'

We have never faced the problem before," said Barnes.

"Some believe computers in your car may keep it from starting while others

fear the computers which control aircraft and railroads may result in

planes falling from the skies and trains crashing head-on across the

country. Some predict your bank account readout may be delayed while others

expect a collapse of the world economy," he said.

Aside from more extreme forecasts, most predictions of problems are similar

to those that happen in the aftermath of other disasters. So while disaster

response organizations are trying to educate people, they are also fending

off public overreaction by sticking to prudent but not extreme

recommendations. The majority of these - generally issued with a "just in

case" tone -- do not include necessarily include hoarding cash or

stockpiling food, however, many people across the nation are doing just


The President's Council on Y2K Conversion has focused on eight major areas:

emergency planning, utilities and the national power grid, international

banking and finance, health care, transportation, telecommunications,

pension and mutual funds, and general business.

Barnes and other faith-based organization leaders said that, like other

types of disasters, the Y2K bug could disproportionately affect

already-vulnerable populations. "For example, local churches should be on

the lookout for elderly people who may experience a disruption in social

security checks, or for disabled people who can't get to work because an

elevator has stopped working," he said.

FEMA is publicly urging emergency management, fire services, and the public

to get ready now for Y2K. A recent FEMA survey found that the emergency

service systems of many counties and municipalities remain untested, even

if state-level offices have already passed Y2K compliance tests.

Throughout February and March, FEMA will conduct Y2K workshops nationwide

to help emergency managers develop contingency plans.

Already, many states have scheduled National Guard troops for duty December

31 through January 1 in case of blackouts, looting, or other problems

related to computer shutdown. Troops would most likely aid civilian

law-enforcement, transportation agencies, and emergency medical crews, much

as they do during other types of disasters. The decision to call out the

National Guard in each state rests with the governor.

The January 1 date rollover is not the sole day of concern for those

involved in disaster response related to Y2K. Computer shutdowns could also

happen this year on September 30 (the end of the federal government's

fiscal year), April 7 (the 99th day of the year), and September 9 (9/9/99,

a popular way that early computer programmers indicated termination of a

program). In addition, the year 2000 is a leap year - so the date 2/29/00

may challenge computer systems as well.

Many aspects of everyday life -- elevators, escalators, vehicles, building

ventilation systems, fire alarms, security systems, and even grocery store

scanners -- may rely on embedded computer chips that are not Y2K compliant.

All systems that rely on computers or electronic devices that refer to date

and time may be affected by Y2K. This includes power, dispatch,

communications, and 911 systems.

Even those in rural areas are not immune to potential problems. Tractors

and farm equipment also rely on computer chips.

Posted Feb. 24, 1999

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