State makes Y2K plans

City, counties check emergency measures in case systems fail

Governor staying home

Generators, water selling well as Md. prepares for turnover

April 05, 1999|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,SUN STAFF

When the clock strikes midnight this New Year's Eve, no one knows whether you'll have lights and water. But state and local officials, preparing for the computer "millennium bug," are devising emergency plans if you don't.

Though major problems are thought to be unlikely, the governor has canceled plans to vacation in Mexico, state officials are reviewing their emergency operations plans -- including sections on civil unrest -- and emergency crews are arranging to open a command center in Pikesville on New Year's Eve.

Baltimore and the surrounding counties are lining up shelters, taking inventory of power generators and rehearsing what to do if the worst happens. Baltimore County's Police Department has canceled leave for its officers as a precaution. State and local governments are preparing a public information campaign that will urge residents to prepare but not panic.

"We hope to be the voice of reason," said Victoria Goodman, the spokeswoman for Howard County.

The millennium bug, or Y2K problem, stems from the inability of some computer systems to recognize the year 2000. Unless those systems are corrected, they will interpret 2000 as 1900, causing a host of problems.

Dire forecasts predict mass failures in computers controlling everything from airplanes and nuclear weapons to garage door openers and videocassette recorders. State and local officials say that at worst, the problems might be akin to those caused by a major snowstorm, with brief power and telephone outages.

But in a region where many residents rush to stockpile bread and milk when the first snowflake falls, the more optimistic forecast might hold little comfort.

Area companies that sell power generators and bottled water have reported an increase in inquiries from people worried about the problem.

Brian Walsh, branch manager of Rental Tools and Equipment in Arbutus, is receiving eight to 12 calls a day from residents and business owners seeking to buy or rent generators for the New Year. "Right now, we can't get enough," he said.

State and local officials have been preparing for possible problems for years. They have spent millions testing and upgrading computer systems to ensure that their computers continue to work after New Year's Eve.

"Everyone is going to be on edge," said Bill Wheeler, Harford County's information systems manager. "There's the uncertainty: You might have missed something."

Baltimore and most counties are confident that the computers that control the governments' administrative functions have been fixed, ensuring that residents will be able to buy a dog license or pay a parking ticket on the first business day of the new year.

The building housing Baltimore's financial computer systems is equipped with an emergency generator, so water bills and property tax statements can be generated even if residents are in the dark.

The 911 emergency communications systems in the counties and the city have been tested, and final adjustments are being made. In a power outage, emergency generators should keep police and fire operations working normally, local officials say.

Water and sewer service will depend on the availability of electricity in many areas, because not enough generators are available to operate all the area pumping stations. As long as power is available, "you should be able to flush your toilet," Wheeler said.

The coming weeks will bring a flurry of drills and a public information campaign as the city and counties aim to have all of their systems ready for the New Year by summer.

Taking a cue from what happened in the ice storms of the past winter, when Carroll County residents took refuge in Baltimore County shelters, the counties are compiling a comprehensive list of shelters and generators that would be available in the metropolitan area in power outages.

They also are writing contingency plans addressing the problems that could arise if power disruptions occur.

Larry Mabe, deputy chief of the Harford County Division of Emergency Operations, said the county is "relatively certain our internal systems will be OK."

The big question remains whether power and phone companies will be able to provide uninterrupted service.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. have been working for several years to correct computer problems, testing thousands of pieces of equipment, and both say they have noted nothing to raise alarm.

"I'm not going to buy a generator, and I will be just fine," said Robert W. Cornelius, BGE's year 2000 program manager.

But emergency response officials suggest that residents be prepared for power outages that could last several days.

They advise residents to have extra batteries, flashlights, portable radios, bottled water and nonperishable foods to last three to seven days.

"We're hoping for the best, but it is imperative for people to be prepared," said Butch Kinerney, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

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