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  Y2K Test Has Montgomery Confident of Bug-Free 2000

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 1998; Page A1

For anyone trembling at the thought of New Year's Day 2000, when doomsayers predict the millennium bug will black out cities, crash airplanes and short-circuit anything with a computer chip, the solution is simple: Come to Montgomery County.

Montgomery officials tricked several county computer systems yesterday into thinking it was Jan. 1, 2000, and the Republic still stands. Life in Rockville's drab government high-rises proceeded uninterrupted. Traffic signals from Takoma Park to Poolesville worked; telephone calls connected; police and fire engines were dispatched with workaday punctuality.

"Flawless," declared Bruce Romer, the county's chief administrative officer, after the clocks on four computer systems were turned ahead 376 days with no apparent malfunction. "We believe our citizenry can have a comfort level that the county government is addressing the issue."

Of course, county officials had a high comfort level of their own before becoming one of the nation's first local governments to publicly check its preparedness for the next millennium. The computer networks handling traffic lights, 911 emergency calls, accounts payable and voter-registration records had been tested and retested before yesterday's "test," leaving little chance the outcome would be anything but perfect.

For several years, the so-called Y2K bug has been a high-tech specter terrifying government and business leaders. It is a programming flaw rooted in the fact that most computers process dates only by the last two digits, assuming the first two would be 1 and 9. When the millennium arrives, computers running everything from air-traffic control consoles to power grids could treat the date as 1900 and crash.

Solving the problem in this country alone could cost more than $50 billion, and some concerned people have begun stockpiling food and other provisions for the possibility. Even Montgomery officials, despite their work to debug their own networks, are taking precautions in case others are not as farsighted. In the days before New Year's Eve 1999, Romer will instruct several banks to stash $14 million in cash in their vaults. That's the equivalent of one county pay period, just in case direct deposit fails.

Montgomery has been tackling the Y2K problem for the past three years. County officials say that they have spent half the $34 million set aside to debug the county's 288 computer systems and that 36 percent have been deemed good to go come Jan. 1, 2000. The rest are scheduled to be ready by April, and county officials implored local businesses and homeowners to follow suit.

Yesterday's daylong exercise drew more than 50 local government officials from across the country -- along with a score of reporters -- to witness what might happen.

Just before noon, members of the media made their way to the 11th-floor nerve center of Montgomery's traffic control operation, where computers would be bumped ahead to 23:58 military time on Dec. 31, 1999. Big screen televisions flashed pictures from a few of the county's 700 intersections. And Emil J. Wolanin, chief of the county transportation systems management section, gave a preview of things to come.

"You will see," Wolanin said, as the clock ticked toward the zero hour, "that nothing in fact happens."

Wolanin was right. Several television screens showed traffic lights around the county doing what they were supposed to.

Despite the lack of drama, the Y2K bug has the potential to be especially pernicious in a technology-loving county like Montgomery. County officials are in the process of outfitting 200 county buses with Global Positioning Systems to pinpoint their exact locations every second, so as to better monitor whether they are on schedule.

But so far, Y2K problems have been largely nonexistent. About the closest county officials came to a scare was earlier this year when one system kept kicking back to 1980 when technicians tried to set a date in 2000.

County officials did not just test their computers yesterday. The day started with Romer assembling about 20 department heads and telling them to pretend New Zealand had just entered the next millennium. He then described a series of problems cropping up in the 13 hours from the time the millennium dawns in the South Pacific, sweeps across Asia and Europe, and reaches Rockville: Corrupted databases in Australia, a stalled elevator in Sweden, flashing traffic signals in Great Britain. He gave them two hours to come up with solutions.

Throughout the day, Romer injected other twists and turns in the simulated response, handled in a bunker-like room in the basement of the County Council building. A winter storm struck, common in January, and the 20,000 people attending First Night festivities in Silver Spring had no subway service to get home.

So it went, at times offering a glimpse into what Montgomery might have to deal with a little more than a year from now -- or maybe not.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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