With the start of the new millennium rapidly approaching, officials in the Town of Vienna knew they had to replace out-of-date telephone systems at their government offices and police stations.
No one in Vienna wanted to get bit by the so-called Y2K bug.
On recommendations from technical experts in Fairfax County, the town agreed to pay Bell Atlantic to install the new police Emergency 911 phone system, a 31-station digital telecommunications network that would be compatible with the systems used by police throughout the area.
The cost: $45,000.
But now the town is on the verge of canceling the Bell Atlantic contract after company officials repeatedly refused to guarantee that the phone system would be Y2K compliant once the equipment was installed.
"They are flatly refusing to provide a Y2K guarantee," Mayor Charlie Robinson said. "All we want is a guarantee that our part of the system is going to work."
The Y2K problem is a computer glitch that may cause computers and other systems to fail on Jan. 1, 2000. It was created when programmers used only two digits to represent a date. As a result, on Jan. 1, computers that have not been reprogrammed will think the date is Jan. 1, 1900.
Businesses and governments have been working for several years to either reprogram or replace older systems. In Vienna's case, the town decided to replace the aging telephone systems with up-to-date technology.
Bell Atlantic officials said yesterday that they are in no position to guarantee Y2K compliance because they are merely installing another manufacturer's equipment. The 911 system would use Norstar equipment, according to town documents.
Bell Atlantic spokesman Jim Smith said the phone company can only pass on the manufacturer's warranty.
"We are installing someone else's equipment," Smith said. "We have tremendous confidence in the equipment. But if I didn't make the stuff, how can I possibly be a person who guarantees it?"
Smith said the phone company went further than it usually does by promising to act as Vienna's agent in any Y2K-related disputes with the manufacturer. But he said if that's not good enough for the Vienna Town Council, so be it.
"If the town of Vienna wants to walk away from what is a very good deal, that's going to have to be their decision," he said.
Robinson said he's not happy with that answer.
He has scheduled an emergency meeting of the Town Council for Aug. 30 to discuss the issue. He said that unless Bell Atlantic decides to offer a last-minute guarantee, the town is likely to cancel the contract and hire Siemens Business Communications to install the system instead.
Robinson said Vienna is pressing the issue because Fairfax County, which recently purchased a similar 911 system from Bell Atlantic, received an ironclad Y2K guarantee from the company.
Smith confirmed that Bell Atlantic offered the county a guarantee, but he said that the county system was made by a different manufacturer. He declined to name that manufacturer but said it offered a Y2K guarantee, which Bell Atlantic passed on to the county.
"The giving of guarantees depends on the circumstances," he said. "The circumstances in the county case are different. The suppliers are different."
If Vienna cancels the Bell Atlantic contract, Robinson said the town would not be without a 911 system on Jan. 1. He said Siemens is already installing a new phone system at the town hall and has indicated it would be willing to perform the police station contract, too.
"We have to consider extending our town hall contract with Siemens," Robinson said. "All we want is a guarantee."