A woman from Ohio wants to know whether her power company is Y2K-compliant. A man from Alabama is concerned that his mother's Social Security check could be delayed by computer glitches. A New Yorker is wondering just how much food and water he should have on hand this weekend. And a woman from California is debating whether to buy a cellular phone just in case her regular line goes dead on Saturday morning.
Amy Robinson has a reassuring answer for each of them.
Robinson, one of two dozen research specialists who handle calls to the federal government's Y2K telephone hot line, says the power company in question, according to an Energy Department report that she pulls up on her computer, has fixed all of its critical computer systems. The Social Security Administration is sending out its January checks before the end of the year. People should keep a few days' worth of food and water at home. And, in her fourth call in a 10-minute span, she declares to the woman from California that "the phone companies are all confident you'll have your normal phone service in the new year."
With two days to go before the world rings in the year 2000, these are hectic times at the federal Y2K Consumer Information Center. Housed in a nondescript brick building in this quiet western Maryland town nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, the facility is getting a last-minute flood of calls from people who continue to be concerned and confounded by the date glitch.
Most of the inquiries in recent days have focused on preparedness: Should I take extra money out of the bank? Top off my gas tank? (They're urging callers not to withdraw more money than they normally would for a holiday weekend, and to feel comfortable with half a tank of gasoline.)
The specialists who answer the phones and their supervisors say the tenor of the questions indicates that there is still widespread apprehension about the "millennium bug" but that people appear to be addressing the fear in a calm way, without hoarding food, cash and other supplies. That is a particularly reassuring sign for government and business leaders, who have long worried that panicky consumers could cause more chaos than any computer failures.
"The panic factor has gone down," said Stephen A. Smith, the center's manager. "Based on the things we're hearing from callers, it's looking like people are going to respond rationally."
Although they're indirectly paid by the government, the Y2K specialists at the center don't take a Pollyannaish view. They tell callers that some systems undoubtedly will have problems. They frankly mention that small businesses and a few critical economic sectors--particularly health care--have lagged in repair work. But they also say that major disruptions are unlikely.
"We're not trying to dish out propaganda," said Roger L. Goldblatt, a Y2K project manager at the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the call center in conjunction with the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. The facility is operated under a federal contract by Biospherics Inc., a Beltsville firm that also runs other government telephone services.
The center, which has 48 incoming phone lines and can be reached by dialing 1-888-USA-4Y2K (872-4925), has logged more than 230,000 calls since it opened in January. The facility, which normally handles calls from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., will operate nonstop for 36 hours starting Friday morning. The specialists on duty will have a direct connection to the government's Y2K "command center" in Washington so they can receive regular updates should problems develop, Smith said.
When the center first began taking calls, the people trying to answer questions were hindered by a lack of concrete information, Goldblatt said. "When we were asked about electricity or air-traffic control, we'd say that the industry and the [Federal Aviation Administration] were making good progress but that they weren't going to be done until June 30," he said. "Now we can say to people that they are 100 percent done or something very close to that."
Many of the calls initially focused on broad topics, Goldblatt said: Are nuclear reactors going to be okay? What about nuclear missiles?
Now, he said, many of the questions are more personal. "They want to know if their burglar alarm system and the PC will have problems," he said.
The center also has had a surge in questions about Y2K-related terrorism in the wake of recent incidents along the U.S.-Canada border, Goldblatt said.
And, of course, there are the questions that have caused center employees to chortle, particularly the South Carolina man who asked how he could get immunized from the Y2K bug. "Then there are the people who ask how much ammunition they should buy," Goldblatt said. "That's one of the rare cases when we don't say, 'Whatever you would normally do for a holiday weekend.' "
He estimates that about 15 percent of the calls are from people who don't have a question and simply want to complain that the government is "covering up" the true scope of Y2K problems. "If they want to rant and say the world is going to end, we're not going to hang up on them right away," he said. "Sometimes we'll ask them, 'We have no reason to believe that. Why do you believe that?' " But if the tirade lasts longer than seven or eight minutes, staffers are instructed to politely end the conversation.
To answer questions, the staffers rely on a voluminous database that contains federal reports and state and local data as well as information from industry groups. Some specialists go even further: Joe Snyder, who sits next to Robinson, has reports from the North American Electric Reliability Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House tacked up on the fuzzy mauve paneling of his cubicle.
If the staffers don't know an answer, they often pledge to research the topic and call back. "I had one person ask whether a declaration of martial law would cover an Indian reservation," Snyder said. (The short answer: No.)
If callers ask about specific products--a burglar alarm system, for instance--they typically will be told to call the manufacturer.
The staffers aren't typical Y2K experts. Most don't have computer programming experience or understand the intricacies of complex software systems. Their training consisted of a two-week crash course in the date glitch, research skills and telephone etiquette. Robinson, for instance, an energetic but poised 19-year-old who has a picture of the pop quintet 'N Sync on her phone, said she didn't even know what Y2K was when she started at the center in January. Now, friends and family regularly pester her with questions.
When callers pose obscure questions, she simply queries the database--which she did when the Ohio woman asked about the status of her power company. The computer led her to an Energy Department report that indicated the utility had fixed all of its critical computer systems, but still had some "limited exceptions" to full Y2K compliance. If there's a problem, Robinson speculated, it will probably involve something such as billing--a suggestion that immediately put the caller at ease.
"If I don't get my bills," the caller said with a snicker, "I don't care."