Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Y2K
Special Report
Links & Resources
How Our
Clock Works

D.C. Plans To Mobilize Workers for Y2K Backup

By Eric Lipton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 1999; Page A1

The District government, recognizing that its year 2000 repair program likely will not be completed on time, is planning a massive New Year's Eve mobilization of emergency personnel and other staff to ensure that critical city services are not interrupted if computer systems fail.

Police will be stationed at more than 120 locations across the city, working 12-hour shifts, to take walk-in requests for emergency services. Twenty-one "warming centers," each supplied with food, water and cots, will open. School crossing guards will be on call, ready to replace traffic lights at major intersections. And D.C. General Hospital will have extra staff members -- as many as 175 -- on site.

These are just a few of the 88 contingency and emergency plans the District is feverishly working to put in place by the end of the year. Similar efforts are underway across the United States among governments and private companies, but in the District, officials have acknowledged the city is so far behind on its Y2K fix that it may have to rely on some of these "work-around" techniques.

"Because we began late, there may be things that suffer an interruption that we did not completely get to," said D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne J. Peck. "Within our agencies . . . in some function, a handful may fail temporarily."

Officials are confident that most of these plans -- even those that will be put into effect regardless of any system failure -- will not be needed, and that even in the District, Y2K will be one of the century's most hyped nonevents.

City officials want to convince the public that the new year will begin in the nation's capital without chaos no matter what happens with D.C. operations or outside services such as telephone, gas and electricity.

"Our intent is not to alarm people, but put people at ease that things are under control," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday. "We are going to have this city work for people."

Added Cmdr. David B. McDonald, the supervisor of police Y2K planning: "We want to reassure the residents and visitors to the District that even if Armageddon comes, we will assist and protect the public."

The D.C. Council will be briefed on the public safety contingency plans at an oversight hearing this morning.

The District's own assessment of its progress in making year 2000 fixes demonstrates the need for such planning: With six months left in the year, only 41 percent of the District's 336 major computer systems have been fixed. The rest are scheduled to be repaired and tested by the end of October.

Of the city's 73 agencies, 19 -- including key departments such as Health, Housing and Community Development; Tax and Revenue; Child and Family Services; and Public Works -- are not even halfway done with their year 2000 repairs and planning.

Williams said he is "not at all surprised" that so much work remains, given the city's late start on addressing the Y2K problem. But he added that he is reasonably comfortable with the status of the city's Y2K repair efforts and has the impression that the District is about even with other major cities, saying the city may be understating its "readiness."

Virginia and Maryland, by comparison, say their government systems are virtually Y2K-proof, and while they also have contingency plans, they are more confident that they won't have to use them.

The year 2000 computer glitch, popularly known as Y2K, stems from the use in many computer systems of two-digit date fields, leading many machines to interpret "00" as 1900, not 2000. This could cause systems to transmit bad data, malfunction or crash.

The District's late start is largely to blame for its lagging effort. While Maryland and Virginia began working on the problem several years ago, the District waited until last summer. Recognizing the danger of a catastrophic failure in the city, Congress gave the District $62 million in emergency funding this year to accelerate the work. But even with an army of more than 300 consultants at work -- most under a $76 million contract with IBM Corp. -- success is far from assured.

The struggle at D.C. General Hospital illustrates the challenge. D.C. General and its related health care divisions are about 48 percent "ready," according to ratings released Wednesday by the District's year 2000 program.

The hospital's mainframe computer system -- which handles medical records, patient accounts, budgeting, laboratory data, patient registration and other hospital operations -- will falter at year's end unless several million dollars in repairs are made.

The city is rushing to install a new computer system, but the first phase is not scheduled to be operating until mid-September. Officials are debating whether to repair the old computer in case the new one is not ready.

And that is only the beginning.

An estimated 80 percent of the 1,000 pagers assigned to staff at D.C. General and other divisions of the city's hospital and health care network are not Y2K compatible. At the start of June, the city had not issued a purchase order to buy replacements.

Each of the hospital's four ultrasound machines and 21 defibrillators -- used to reestablish a regular heartbeat -- is not Y2K compliant, although replacements are on order. And the critical-care monitoring system in the intensive-care unit also must be replaced.

"You can't have an emergency room without a defibrillator. You can't have an intensive-care unit without monitors," said William D. Wild, senior vice president for compliance at D.C. General.

Given all this uncertainty -- and fewer than 190 days before the end of the year -- D.C. General administrators and staff members are spending hundreds of hours preparing backup plans.

The 250-bed hospital, which served 51,237 in its emergency room last year and 80,000 in its hospital clinics, is arranging to have 50 temporary workers available to hand-process records and other tasks if computers fail. As many as 124 employees -- including nurses, doctors and financial staff members -- may be asked to stay overnight on New Year's Eve, Wild said.

An extra 30 to 60 days' worth of pharmaceuticals is being ordered, and up to 90 days' worth of other basic supplies -- from bottled water to bandages -- is being purchased. The cost to the city just for the contingency planning, excluding the basic Y2K repairs, is about $4 million.

Even at agencies where year 2000 repairs are farther along, extensive contingency planning is underway. The broadest effort involves emergency services, where the plans are largely directed at anticipating failure of outside utilities such as electricity and telephone -- all extremely unlikely.

"The phone company says they are 98 percent certain it won't go down. The power companies say they are 99 percent certain everything will work," McDonald said. "But if that 2 percent and 1 percent cross, we need to be prepared."

Every officer in the city's 3,600-person police force will work 12-hour shifts during the New Year's weekend. Starting about 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, the police department will deploy two-person teams to 120 locations across the District, including fire stations, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

Each officer will have a radio, and each of the 10 antenna sites for the radio system will have a backup generator. The city's 150 school crossing guards will learn how to handle traffic if lights go out. Staff is prepared to process crime reports and bookings by hand.

"We can't say, 'Sorry, Mr. Burglar, we can't book you today. Why don't you come back tomorrow?' " McDonald said.

At the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, leave time is being restricted for the 1,763-member staff between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15. Crews on the 16 ladder trucks are being given the tools and training to perform elevator rescues, supplementing the city's three regular rescue squads.

Backup to the city's computer-aided dispatch system is ready: thousands of 3-by-5 cards detailing which trucks to send depending on the address of a call. Fire trucks and ambulances already have been checked.

The city's Emergency Operations Center will be in gear before New Year's Eve, staffed by the public-safety-related agencies, including the Red Cross and the National Guard. All 21 warming centers, most at city schools, will be open New Year's Eve.

"If need be, people who go to these centers will be warm. They will have somewhere to sleep and something to eat," Emergency Management Program Officer Barbara Childs said.

The contingency planning extends far beyond the central emergency agencies.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, for example, will spend more than $1 million to rent several locomotive-size generators to ensure that water will flow if the electricity goes out.

The Public Works Department will ensure that the city has 87,000 gallons of vehicle fuel available, double the normal supply. Extra truck parts, backup generators and other supplies also are on order. Plans have even been made for trash collection crews (they would work day and night), tree maintenance (complaints would be taken at the Reeves Municipal Center on 14th Street NW) and rat patrol (private exterminators would be used).

Officials are urging residents to prepare for the new year as well, stocking up on food, fuel, bottled water and other supplies as they would for a winter storm.

Jack L. Brock Jr., a U.S. General Accounting Office computer expert who described the city's Y2K outlook in February as "bleak," said last week that while he is reassured the city is making contingency plans, it must be able to implement them.

"They can't just be paper plans," said Brock, whose office is about to start another review of the District's Y2K status for Congress. "They have to do enough testing and validation to be confident that they will work."

Interim City Administrator Norman Dong said Williams is committed to ensuring that the plans work. To date, 38 of the 88 contingency plans are in draft or final form. From July until September, 23 mission-critical city agencies will hold mock drills.

"Our hope and expectation is that it will be business as usual," Dong said. "But we are taking nothing for granted. We want to make sure we are covered, that no matter what happens, we are prepared."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar
yellow pages