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Fairfax Tackles Y2K Glitch

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 1999; Page B5

It's 9:45 p.m. on Dec. 31, a little more than two hours before the calendar rolls past the 2000 mark, and a huge blizzard to rival the monster storm in 1996 is bearing down on Northern Virginia.

What if?

Yesterday, Fairfax County officials went through the exercise of simulating what might happen if the region's largest jurisdiction were hit by a double whammy -- electronic equipment failures born of the so-called Y2K glitch and a bashing from Mother Nature.

Around the globe, similar exercises are going on as governments, businesses and the armed services prepare for the worst.

Most Washington area governments say they are ready for the Y2K glitch. Last December, Montgomery County fooled its computers into thinking it was 2000, and virtually nothing malfunctioned. District officials, meanwhile, concede they are behind their suburban neighbors and are racing to fix the city's antiquated systems.

Although Fairfax officials say all county computers have been tested and retested and will work come Jan. 1, a lot could go wrong because of equipment outside the county's control.

And on Jan. 1, weather could be a big complication.

"All of a sudden you've got multiple demands on the same people," said County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr. "In the early stages [of a combined Y2K and weather event], you wouldn't know which was which."

The worst-case scenario that officials had to react to yesterday as they sat around a conference table in the county's emergency management center looked like a disaster movie screenplay. As the simulated situation deteriorated, each agency, from police and fire to the county welfare department, had to say how it would respond.

The temperature is in the teens when the storm blankets Fairfax with 33 inches of snow, causing an accident involving a tractor-trailer that closes the Capital Beltway in both directions. Just after midnight, Y2K problems cause all pagers and cell phones to go dead and the elevators at two hotels to stop, trapping two dozen people.

Just before 1 a.m., the Lake Barcroft dam mysteriously drops, flooding several neighborhoods while residents sleep unaware of the danger, and all traffic signals in the county start flashing yellow. Ambulances get stuck in drifting snow, and power goes out in 75 percent of the county.

Laptop computers stop working, and key cards that emergency workers use to get into county buildings no longer work. Meanwhile, shootings are reported along Route 1, and Alexandria police call for help containing a melee at a waterfront millennium party.

O'Neill said he was pleased that most of the agencies in yesterday's drill were prepared to handle the crises thrown at them.

The police and fire departments were the most ready, he said, with detailed plans for reacting to many incidents at the same time. Both knew how to operate in the kind of snowstorm that was imagined.

"They have spent a lot of time on their contingency plans," O'Neill said. "They were in very good shape."

Not all agencies fared so well.

The county's Family Services Department had no plan for contacting its workers without cell phones and pagers. Others didn't have access to four-wheel-drive vehicles to get to work in the snow. And some didn't know what to do if they couldn't get into their buildings without electronic key cards.

"This was a big wake-up call for a lot of [agencies] for what kind of responsibility they have outside of four in the afternoon," said Alexandra Craige, the deputy coordinator for emergency services in Fairfax.

One lesson from yesterday's meeting: The county's emergency call center needs more capacity if it is to handle thousands of calls from a possibly confused and panicky public.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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