They don't believe the hype, but Howard County officials are not about to leave Y2K uncertainties to chance. So, whether midnight Dec. 31 brings catastrophe or nonevent, more than 100 extra county employees will be on the job, scores of generators and backup plans will be on hand for nearly every contingency thinkable and, if people follow the county's recommendations, residents will be prepared with emergency supplies and food.
It's not easy to plan for a total unknown. Howard County officials started in 1995 with a task force to assess the potential for trouble when 2000 begins. Many older computers use only the last two digits of the year to figure the date and may not be able to recognize that 00 is the year 2000, not 1900. Some fear the confusion could cause computer-induced power failures, transportation and telecommunication disruption, as well as banking and general business problems.
County officials have tried to fix the machines that might have trouble converting the date, and they have devised plans to cope in case equipment still breaks down.
"We're as ready as we think humanly possible," said Y2K coordinator Richard V. Biggs Jr., director of the county's Technology and Communications Department. "Nobody's going to give you a 100 percent [guarantee], but we are quite sure that we're not going to have a problem."
Then why such fuss?
The county has held citizen forums with power companies, telephone and cable providers and health organizations to assure residents that everything's taken care of. It will spend about $3 million to make sure it is, with about two-thirds of that paying for a new registration system for Howard Community College.
Officials have stockpiled generators, ordered new computer software and made backup plans for emergency radio communication and a rationed water supply. They also have designated a dozen help centers and four special needs shelters to deal with emergencies this weekend.
They have been assured by power companies that the new year won't bring about a power loss. But just in case, county police, who will double up in patrol cars tomorrow night, will carry stop signs in their vehicles to post at certain intersections. At several others, generators would be used to power traffic signals.
If necessary, the county will open special needs shelters in four area high schools to serve people whose medical conditions require electric-powered equipment. It will open 12 help centers where residents can get information and emergency assistance, in case the county's 911 system fails.
The county's radio system has been reprogrammed to operate without power, and in a backup situation, without phone lines or radio towers.
And if the county loses its water supply from Baltimore, officials have designated distribution sites from which they would ration water from the county's full water tanks.
They say all the precautions will help prevent problems not only on New Year's Eve but any time.
"If this turns out to be a nonevent, which we certainly hope it does, we feel the county is probably better prepared now to deal with anything," said James Heller, the county's director of fire and rescue services.
County Executive James N. Robey (D) and most of his Cabinet heads will spend New Year's Eve in the basement of the George Howard Building, in Ellicott City, holed up in the county's Emergency Operations Center, equipped with a bank of phones and a computer system powered by generators. They plan to stay through the morning and then assess how much longer to keep the center open. If new problems sprang up as businesses reopened Monday, the emergency center could be reopened.
Despite the massive preparations, county officials are pleading with residents not to overreact. "We've really tried to give a calm, collected message," Biggs said. Indeed, in the county's preparedness and response plan, one of the potential consequences of Y2K hysteria listed is: "Even minor disruptions to services may be misinterpreted or misrepresented and could result in a panic reaction completely out of proportion to the actual Y2K event."
Residents should do what they can to make sure their own computer-controlled equipment is Y2K compliant, particularly essential equipment such as fire and security alarm systems and programmable thermostats. Beyond that, county officials don't suggest anything drastic.
"We're telling people to prepare for this as you would any winter storm," Biggs said. "Have batteries, food, extra water on hand."
JUST IN CASE
A Checklist of Y2K Helpful Hints and Telephone Numbers
If the new year brings problems to Howard County, here is a list of places to go and phone numbers to call.
To report power outages:
Allegheny Power, 1-800-255-3443.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, 410-685-0123.
In a life-threatening emergency, dial 911.
For non-emergency information:
Howard County Emergency Information Line (recorded information), 410-313-2900.
Howard County government, 410-313-2200.
Howard County will open 12 help centers at 8 p.m. Friday so that residents may report emergencies, request police assistance and get information in the event that phone service is disrupted.
Fire Station 1: 6275 Old Washington Blvd., Elkridge.
Fire Station 2: 4150 Montgomery Rd., Ellicott City.
Fire Station 3: 12460 Frederick Rd., West Friendship.
Fire Station 4: 1330 Route 94, Lisbon.
Fire Station 5: 5000 Signal Bell Lane, Clarksville.
Fire Station 6: 8925 Lincoln St., Savage.
Fire Station 7: 5815 Banneker Rd., Columbia.
Fire Station 8: 9601 Route 99, Ellicott City.
Fire Station 9: 5950 Tamar Dr., Columbia.
Fire Station 10: 10155 Old Columbia Rd., Columbia.
Fire Station 11: 11226 Scaggsville Rd., Laurel.
Police Headquarters: Warfield Building, 3410 Courthouse Dr., Ellicott City.
SPECIAL NEEDS SHELTERS
For residents whose medical care requires electric-powered equipment, these special needs shelters will open in the order listed.
Long Reach High School, 6101 Old Dobbin Rd., Columbia.
Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Rd., Columbia.
River Hill High School, 12101 Route 108, Clarksville.
Centennial High School, 4300 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City.
What supplies should you have on hand in case there are Y2K problems? The same food and equipment you would keep for a weather emergency, according to federal Y2K experts, as well as up-to-date financial and medical records.
Bottled water (a gallon per person per day).
At least three days' worth of nonperishable, ready-to-eat food.
Flashlights, battery-operated radio, extra batteries.
Extra supplies for infants, the elderly or others with special needs.
At least a half-tank of gas in the car.
Enough cash for a couple of days, but not too much because of the risk of theft.
Check with the manufacturer whether computers, security systems, programmable thermostats and other home equipment are Y2K-compatible.
More information is available on the Internet at www.y2k.gov.
SOURCES: Federal Emergency Management Agency, President's Council on Y2K Conversion