With just days to go before the much-anticipated arrival of Y2K, regional officials are gearing up to let their contingency plans fly, preparing for the worst of disasters while predicting that not much will be different after the calendars change to 2000.
Prince William County administrators and other local officials said last week that they are more than ready for whatever problems might arise at midnight Friday. They are, however, still taking a cautious route. Both county and local city administrations have planned for almost any conceivable problems that could be associated with the date change. And they are urging residents to prepare for New Year's Eve the same way they might prepare for a severe winter storm or a hurricane.
"We're planning for the unknown," said Manassas Police Chief John J. Skinner, who has been heading the city's Y2K preparedness team since last year. "It would take the wisdom of Solomon to divine the international and global impacts of Y2K and what the regional problems may be. We just don't know what to anticipate."
Because of the unknown, Skinner said, local officials have taken many scenarios into account, preparing emergency response teams and contingency plans for almost any situation, including long-term power outages, loss of communications and the need for emergency shelter. In Manassas, for example, three times the typical number of police officers will be on duty for New Year's Eve and plans are in place for all of the city's major departments so they'll be able to function in the first days of January.
"I believe that the city is well-prepared to effectively respond to any unusual occurances associated with potential Y2K threat assessments that we've anticipated," Skinner said. "We feel very confident with our level of planning and with the various contingency plans that have been developed to mitigate any potential issues that might arise."
Prince William officials have been planning for the big day for almost two years, updating computer systems and defining action plans that will go into effect as problems are identified. The county's more than 2,400 computers have been listed as being Y2K compliant, and several major information systems were replaced or updated during the process, including Prince William's financial accounting system and the payroll information system.
"The county government has taken the year 2000 date change seriously, and we are prepared to respond to the community's needs," County Executive Bern Ewert said in a statement last week. "County employees will join others around the region and around the world to ensure that we move safely into the new year."
Kathy Bentz, a county spokeswoman, said that Prince William residents are encouraged to develop their own contingency plans to provide for shelter, food and water in the event of an emergency. She likened those preparations to what people likely would undertake before a major storm.
In the event of a prolonged power outage, the county will have seven emergency shelters--powered by generators--up and running on New Year's Day. County officials said that residents also may seek help at local fire stations throughout the county.
Prince William's emergency operation center will open at 9 p.m. Friday, and officials will begin a community assessment of critical services at midnight. The county will update its information throughout the night on its information hot line: 703-792-INFO, message No. 107.
Prince William County Public Schools also have been preparing for Y2K, checking telephones, heating and air conditioning systems, public address systems, libraries, student information and e-mail, among other computer-operated systems. Several systems have needed new hardware or software. The school system made an inventory of 3,959 networked computers earlier this year and found that 36 percent needed some kind of upgrade.
Computer specialists have told the School Board that Prince William schools should be prepared as the year 2000 arrives. Computer technicians will be on call or working New Year's Day, just to make sure everything is operating smoothly. Teachers and students will return to school from the winter break Jan. 4.
Most of the work local officials have done has been to prepare current governmental services for continued use in 2000--by eliminating the feared "Y2K glitch" that threatens to paralyze unprepared computer systems--and to make sure that if failures do occur, there will be a swift and effective response.
In Manassas Park, city officials purchased more than $11,000 worth of food to stock the city's year 2000 emergency center at Manassas Park Middle School, enough canned and nonperishable food to feed 450 people for about six days. The city also bought several generators to provide power and heat for the shelter.
Stafford County officials are preparing several plans in case of disaster. A special emergency operations center will be set up in the county's administrative building from 5 p.m. Friday through 3 a.m. Saturday, provided that nothing cataclysmic happens. The center will be manned with emergency personnel from power, utility, rescue and other service providers.
In the event that communications are down, there will be five stations set up throughout the county where residents can go to report problems. Citizen volunteers, fire and rescue personnel and a radio operator will be stationed at Hartwood Elementary School, Brooke Point High School, North Stafford High School, Stafford High School and the Widewater Fire Department from 11 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, or longer as the case may be.
From 9 p.m. Friday until 3 a.m. Saturday, a special phone line also will be available: 540-658-HELP (4357).
Aside from emergency centers for the hours surrounding New Year's Eve, Stafford also has arranged for extra water and fuel. Although officials are not purchasing jugs of water, the county's water tanks will be filled to capacity before Friday, a supply that could last about three days, officials said. Also, the tanks can be operated manually if necessary.
Fuel suppliers will be on hand in case emergency vehicles run out of gas, and a continuous supply of diesel fuel will be on hand to power backup generators.
"We've put a plan in place to anticipate the worst case scenario," said Steve Crosby, assistant county administrator. "We'll monitor the events and hopefully nothing will happen."
Staff writers Steven Ginsberg, Christina A. Samuels and Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.