State, local agencies pass readiness test for Y2K emergencies

5-hour drill proclaimed success by governor

July 23, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

There is a major oil spill in Delaware Bay. A plane is down in St. Mary's County. And there are problems at the nuclear power plant in Calvert County.

All as thousands of revelers celebrate the end of the century. Oh yeah, there is also a snowstorm.

Happy Y2K, Maryland.

Such a confluence of major problems is not likely to happen at midnight Dec. 31, officials say, but they pretended for a few hours yesterday during a test of the state's emergency readiness.

Dozens of state and local officials from all 23 counties, Baltimore and Ocean City, played along during the five-hour drill, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening later proclaimed a success.

"The exercise went extraordinarily well," Glendening said. "We stressed the system with a whole host of plausible but unlikely emergencies."

Yesterday's drill was part of the state's effort to be ready for so-called Y2K problems.

Of concern is the potential problem if computers are unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900, which could lead to widespread computer failures at midnight Dec. 31.

The state has spent more than $115 million on new computers and testing, Glendening said. All the state's crucial computer systems in such key departments as health, transportation and public safety have been tested and are ready for the switch to the next century, the governor said.

Glendening watched yesterday as the computers were successfully tested for Y2K compliance at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, the agency that oversees ambulance and hospital communication as well as the state's Med- Evac helicopter rescue program.

As the agency's digital clocks rolled over to Jan. 1, the communications systems continued to work smoothly.

About 10 percent of state computers -- none of them considered crucial -- are not ready for Y2K. Glendening promised they would be by fall.

During yesterday's drill, a private company that specializes in disaster simulations threw a series of problems, including a few false rumors, at the roomful of officials gathered at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in Pikesville.

Dozens of other state and local officials participated in their offices around Maryland.

A crucial difficulty came when long-distance telephone service was said to have crashed in the state, forcing officials to use military communication systems and couriers to stay in touch.

"We're trying to plant seeds in their minds about what could happen," said Robert Wilkerson, president of Computer Response Group, a Washington, D.C., company that conducted the drill. "Nothing is going to happen that we don't have experience with."

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