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  Southern Md. Has Advantage Over Y2K Bug

By Todd Shields
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 1998; Page M1

Southern Maryland governments expect to spend more than half a million dollars preparing for the year 2000 glitch that could shut down some computers as 1999 expires.

The problem could suspend sewer pumps, elevators, jail door locks and payroll processors. This would happen when computers misinterpret Jan. 1, 2000, as Jan. 1, 1900 -- and stop working or mishandle functions sensitive to time or date.

Nationally, businesses and governments are spending billions of dollars to buttress computer systems that underpin banks, airlines, freight companies, and power grids. Whether the glitch will cause minor or major disruptions is not known.

Officials in Southern Maryland's three counties said they expect to avoid major problems, in part because their computer networks are relatively small and new. It is easier to isolate the problem in small systems, and newer computers tend to be less vulnerable than old machines.

However, officials said they need to keep looking for vulnerabilities to the glitch -- the so-called Y2K bug.

In Charles County, administrators have made department heads responsible for ensuring their computers work through the date change.

For more than a year, county workers have been investigating computers for weaknesses and fixing those they find, said Victoria L. Greenfield, the county's deputy administrator. She said county officials expect to finish testing by the middle of 1999.

She could not immediately say how much money the county was spending on the effort to survey and inoculate its 270 to 300 computers.

The county's independent auditor, Thomas J. Murphy, called its efforts "above average."

"They're spending enough time and money, more than most," Murphy said. "They're taking it seriously, which I'm happy to report."

Technicians can avert the problem by teaching computers how to properly interpret the troublesome date change. In some cases officials plan to replace old computer systems that would stumble over the threshold of the new century.

In Calvert County, commissioners on Tuesday agreed to hire Aspen Systems Corp. to replace its public safety computers and upgrade the county's remaining computer systems so that they all will work by 2000 and beyond.

The four-phase contract with Aspen will cost the county $456,223, said Terry Shannon, the county's Y2K project manager. Aspen is expected to start work on the problem in the first week of January and finish by July 1, Shannon said Tuesday. "It's a very aggressive schedule," she said.

"But the liabilities could be significant," Shannon said last week. "We need to know the services we provide will function beyond 12/31/99."

Calvert County's fiscal system, which tracks and issues receipts and payments, is vulnerable to the Y2K problem, as is the county's internal network for sharing documents and information, Shannon said. She said a county computer programmer was rectifying the problem in both systems.

"Beyond that we don't have any major concerns -- but we just don't know," Shannon said.

She said Calvert County has about 200 computers, and about half of those were purchased recently and not vulnerable to the Y2K problem.

In St. Mary's County, computer chief Ann Anderson said most of the county's 500 computers are new and not vulnerable. Its older machines could be made Y2K-compliant with "a quick software patch," Anderson said.

St. Mary's benefits from coming late to the computer age. Anderson was hired in early 1997 to automate government functions. She has guided the county to purchasing a new computer system for payroll, purchasing and other functions. It is to begin working in March, and will be Y2K-compliant.

Likewise, St. Mary's has decided on a new, $26 million emergency communications system that will be unaffected by the Y2K problem, Anderson said.

The county in November awarded a $248,000 contract to consultants who will probe the rest of the St. Mary's government for vulnerabilities and help redress them. For instance, Anderson said, officials are unsure whether the county detention center's climate control system will function properly.

Officials said parts of the Y2K problem may prove to be elusive. Workers need to hunt for the tiny computer chips that instruct many modern devices.

"That's the piece that scares me -- outside of computers. Where is that embedded chip?" said Shannon, the Calvert County Y2K project manager. For instance, she said, chips may control the functions of sewer or water pumps.

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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