LETTER FROM . . . SOMEWHERE IN THE SUBURBS

New Year's Eve in the Power Room

One of the most exclusive tickets for New Year's Eve is an admittance to the command center operated by Potomac Electric Power Co., where executives and engineers led by Chairman John M. Derrick Jr. will be gathering to make sure the lights stay on in the District and suburban Maryland during the Y2K rollover.

News media representatives will be there too, but the public isn't invited and party-crashers will have to look elsewhere. The location is being kept secret by Pepco for obvious reasons.

The command center, dominated by a wall-size map of the Pepco power system, was the location chosen by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and industry chiefs on Thursday to announce that the nation's electric power and gas companies had rooted out their Year 2000 computer problems.

So confident is Richardson of the utility industry's readiness that he told folks they surely wouldn't need those backup electricity generators from Sears or Home Depot. "If you can get a good deal on your return, do it, because for Y2K reasons, you don't need a power generator," he said.

-- Peter Behr

LETTER FROM . . . COLLEGE PARK

Building a Firehouse in Cyberspace

Firehouse.com, a Web portal for emergency services based in College Park, nearly doubled its traffic this month as people posted condolences online and tuned in to view live video Webcasts from memorial services for six firefighters killed in a structure fire in Worcester, Mass.

Firehouse.com was one of 10 Web sites to win one of Ziff-Davis's "Global Information Infrastructure" awards last week for its contribution to the Internet. Firehouse won in the news and information category.

The year-old Web site posts live news several times a day about emergency services, including incident reports from fire departments nationwide. Its news, message boards, wildfire updates and safety information draw an average of 14,000 visitors a day.

"Traffic is double what we anticipated, and we will be expanding vastly this coming year," said David Iannone, 25, the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department lieutenant who founded the site. Firehouse.com is owned by Cygnus Business Media.

-- Leslie Waker

PRINCE WILLIAM

Permits Reconsidered

In one of his first public appearances, the newly elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Sean T. Connaughton, said he plans to personally look into the county's often cumbersome permitting process, which has been a sore spot for developers and new companies trying to settle in the county.

"We must be more competitive. A company wanting to locate in Prince William should be able to obtain a permit from us in 30 days," he said.

Connaughton, who spoke last week at a meeting held by the Prince William-66 Partnership -- a nonprofit business group focusing on business growth in the county near Interstate 66 -- said he is also going to help to market the county as a technology hot spot.

"We are at the very center of the Northern Virginia technology explosion," he said. "And I want our citizens and corporate executives sitting in an airport somewhere to be proud to tell a stranger that my home or business is in Prince William County, Virginia."

Connaughton (R) beat out longtime Democratic Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt in a closely contested race this year. Connaughton ran on a slow-growth platform and blamed Seefeldt for failing to control growth, resulting in overcrowded schools, clogged roads and rising taxes.