Emergency Centers to Battle Bug
By Stephen Barr
The Clinton administration plans to enlist federal and state emergency command centers in the fight against the Year 2000 computer "bug," a presidential adviser said yesterday.
John A. Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said the council would pull together existing emergency response centers run by the Defense and State departments, intelligence agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address problems that might be faced by citizens, communities and states on Jan. 1, 2000.
Koskinen and a number of computer industry experts dismiss doomsday predictions of widespread power outages and telephone failures in 2000 but caution that many small companies and local governments that have not paid much attention to the so-called Y2K bug may face short-term disruptions with an impact similar to a severe winter storm.
"If we're going to have emergencies, they are going to look like normal ones, but the unique thing will be that we may have a series of them all at once, domestically and internationally," Koskinen said in an interview. "So our focus is now on how to coordinate, to create a coordinating mechanism to ensure that we have, in fact, got all of these command centers and response systems operating together."
He said FEMA would soon meet with state emergency response teams to develop plans to deal with Year 2000 computer problems as they arise.
Koskinen's remarks came as the administration expanded its efforts to make the public aware of possible Y2K problems. At a news conference yesterday at the Federal Trade Commission, he announced the creation of a toll-free telephone number that consumers can call to obtain information about the Year 2000 computer glitch.
The 24-hour number, 1-888-USA-4-Y2K (872-4925), offers general information about household products, preparations by power and telephone companies, other economic sectors and the federal government. Information specialists will field questions from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that in most cases the specialists would not be able to answer questions about specific brands and recommended that consumers contact manufacturers directly. Brochures addressing typical consumer questions may be obtained by calling 202-FTC-HELP (382-4357).
Information also is available on the Internet from the president's council (http://www.y2k.gov) and the FTC (http://www.ftc.gov), officials said.
Y2K, the computer industry's shorthand for the Year 2000 computer problem, stems from the use in many computer systems of a two-digit dating system that assumes the first two digits of the year are 1 and 9. Without specialized reprogramming, the systems will recognize "00" not as 2000 but as 1900, possibly causing computer malfunctions.
At yesterday's news conference, Koskinen released the council's first status report on industries' efforts to fix their computer systems. The report says that major industries are paying attention to Y2K but notes that several industry associations are still working to gather data from their members.
The large telecommunications companies described "substantial progress toward updating their systems. However, less information is available regarding smaller organizations," the report said.
Koskinen's council, the report said, "is eagerly awaiting" the results of an Air Transport Association survey that will indicate the Y2K readiness of major passenger airlines. Results are expected within the next two months.
Koskinen repeatedly expressed concern yesterday that small to medium-size organizations are not preparing for possible Y2K disruptions. Data in the report appeared to support his concern:
* A December 1998 survey of 500 counties in 46 states by the National Association of Counties found that roughly half did not have a plan for addressing Y2K issues.
* A recent National Federation of Independent Business survey indicated that as many as a third of small businesses using computers have no plans to assess their Y2K exposure.
While the report acknowledged that "international activities is the area for which there is the least amount of information," it concluded that most countries "are significantly behind the United States in efforts to prepare critical systems for the new millennium."
The report said that "lack of progress on the international front may lead to failures that could affect the United States, especially in areas that rely upon cross-border networks such as finance, telecommunications and transportation."
Nations that ranked themselves as "least prepared" on Y2K telecommunications issues included those in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
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