Sunday, December 5, 1999
State, Firms Prepared For Y2K
By Tom McGhee
Journal Staff Writer
Confidence is high that the once-dreaded Y2K bug -- set to arrive in 26 days -- will cause only minor technical glitches in New Mexico and across the country.
Human behavior, however, is another question all together.
If the public does some serious eleventh-hour hoarding, supplies of food and other staples could be squeezed.
"Perceptions could become reality," said Andy Kyte, an analyst at the national Y2K consulting firm Gartner Group, based in Stamford, Conn.
Drug companies are bracing for a surge in orders for medicine. Many suppliers have already sold out of emergency equipment such as electric generators. Banks expecting a last-minute run on ATMs have extra cash on hand. And phone companies are worried millions of people will pick up the phone at the stroke of midnight to check for a dial tone -- overloading the system.
On the technical side, though, the consensus is that serious Y2K problems are more likely to occur in other countries. Domestically, the main glitches are expected in small towns and rural communities, and among small businesses.
U S West, PNM, the city of Albuquerque, banks, the state -- all say they expect few problems. And all report substantial efforts to assure that the clock's advancement into a new century is remarkable only for the festivities it brings.
Efforts to upgrade systems throughout the country have cost a total of $100 billion, or $365 for every man, woman and child in the United States, according to a Commerce Department report.
The state of New Mexico alone has spent more than $15 million, said Jim Hall, chief information officer for the state.
Millions of lines of code were rewritten, and programs updated, in state computers critical to public safety and welfare, Hall said.
As a result, no one is expected to be prematurely dumped off the welfare rolls, government checks will go out on time and computer databases that are critical to law enforcement will continue to work.
But with so many changes in so many systems, said Hall, there will probably be a few glitches. "I don't expect 100 percent, but I expect it to be close. We have simply made too many changes to too many systems to be perfect.
"I expect the problems that will occur will be minor and will be fixed promptly."
In spite of Hall's confidence, the state still plans to have between 40 and 50 computer and telecommunications specialists on call for New Year's.
All of the Department of Public Safety's 600 law enforcement officers will be on duty or on call during New Year's weekend, said Erin Kinnard, spokeswoman for the department.
New Mexico will have a "Y2K command center" -- the state's Emergency Operations Center outside Santa Fe -- where representatives from several state departments and emergency agencies will be monitoring the computer date rollover from when it begins in Australia and New Zealand, said Mark Moores, a spokesman for the state General Services Department
The center will open at 8 a.m. on Dec. 31 and remain open throughout the weekend.
The city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have upgraded 911 emergency systems and jointly purchased a state-of-the-art radio system used for communications between police and fire personnel. All area agencies will also staff a command center in the city.
The city's water reservoirs will be full when the new year arrives, providing several days of water should the power go out, officials said.
About 20 Albuquerque computer technicians and telecommunications specialists will be on hand at midnight in case of emergency, said Clint Hubbard, the city's information system officer.
More will arrive early on New Year's Day to begin testing systems.
Police, fire and jail officials have a coordinated plan to assure there are enough emergency personnel on hand to handle any problems, Hubbard said.
Prisoners in the state's private and public prisons are expected to remain exactly where they are: No computers or microchips will suddenly spring them, said Gerges Scott, spokesman for the state Corrections Department.
"We still lock up inmates the old-fashioned way, by hand," Scott said. "We don't anticipate any problems with Y2K."
All prison facilities normally use power from the Public Service Company of New Mexico or other utility companies, and if those sources fail, the prisons' generators are expected to supply enough electricity to keep the facilities secure.
All the state's utilities say they are ready to greet the year 2000 with few hitches. PNM, the state's largest electric and gas supplier, spent $20 million to ready plants and equipment.
No blackouts are expected but if the lights do go out due to a storm or related power problem on another utility's system, PNM will be prepared, said spokesman Don Brown.
PNM will have a 24-hour emergency operations center open, in addition to workers at substations and a full contingency of people ready to operate the system manually should it become necessary.
Approximately 400 PNM employees will be on duty, far more than the 56 that normally work the graveyard shift. Another 496 will be on call, Brown said.
The state's largest telephone company, U S West, has been working since 1996 to assure there are no Y2K-related problems throughout its 14-state network.
"We have tested everything and, if necessary, made adjustments so the network is going to work," said U S West spokeswoman Valerie Santillanes.
The company expects the volume of calls to skyrocket as the clock rolls into the new year and lines could get clogged. Customers who don't get through should hang up and try again a few minutes later, she said.
But U S West is asking customers to save nonessential calls for later in the day.
On New Year's Eve, Denver-based U S West will have about a dozen executives on the job to mobilize employees and coordinate any emergency effort if lines do go down.
The company has technicians on call around the clock throughout the year and has plans to increase the number of employees who can come to work if needed, Santillanes said.
"We're really confident that we're not going to have any Y2K issues," she said.
The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research says there's no reason to stockpile drugs in anticipation of shortages.
"The pharmaceutical industry has put controls in place which will ensure that a steady supply of medicine will continue to be available," according to a statement on the center's Web page.
Walgreens, which has 40 pharmacies in New Mexico, says its system is Y2K compliant and its drug stocks are sufficient for the rollover. Still, the Deerfield, Ill.-based company and other pharmaceutical suppliers are recommending customers get prescriptions filled seven days in advance of the prescription running out.
There aren't expected to be any drug shortages or other Y2K problems plaguing New Mexico's hospitals either, said Maureen Boshier, president of the New Mexico Hospital and Health Systems Association.
Equipment at the state's public and private hospitals has been tested for Y2K readiness and the hospitals are prepared, said Boshier, whose association represents 50 hospitals.
The ATM worry
Banks, however, have a little more to worry about. A recent government survey shows 39 percent of bank customers expect to withdraw extra cash in the days leading up to the year 2000.
Hoarding could cause more of a problem than a computer meltdown, said Ed O'Leary, president and CEO of First Security Bank of New Mexico.
"What we're saying to all our customers is that the safest place for your money is in the bank," he said.
"Your cash is FDIC-insured when it's in the bank. Leave it there and you can't fall prey to criminals looking for a score.
"There is no need to fear the banks will run out of cash," said O'Leary. In fact, banks will have access to an ocean of money.
Last year, the central bank ordered an additional $50 billion in new currency to put into circulation in the event people make a run on banks and ATMs late in the year.
Government and industry groups have been advising consumers to put aside about three days' worth of extra supplies and cash -- what you might store up anyway for New Year's. And do it before Dec. 31 -- providing you have any left after Christmas. Even better, keep the cash in the bank and use traveler's checks, credit cards and debit cards.
No one is predicting widespread food shortages. But there is concern that the public could empty shelves of canned vegetables, meats, batteries and other household items.
Smith's Food & Drug stores will be open normal Saturday hours New Year's Day and are not expecting such runs, said Smith's spokeswoman Martha Gilford. Stores will have the normal 30 days' worth of inventory in stock.
"That should see us through any unforeseen ripple," Gilford said.
The Federal Aviation Administration says major U.S. air carriers have no Y2K problems that will keep them from complying with safety standards.
Jay J. Czar, director of aviation for the Albuquerque International Sunport, is expecting the New Year's weekend to pass uneventfully. All critical systems performed well in tests, he said.
If there are problems at Denver or other airports, some of the traffic could be routed here, said Roger Schense, support manager for the Albuquerque tower.
Backup power is in place for runway and other critical lights. And 10 air-traffic controllers will be on duty in the tower, three more than normal.
The government is cautioning against panic when people discover problems during the New Year's weekend. Some non-Y2K computer failures might simply coincide with the date rollover.
After all, Internet sites crash, electricity temporarily fails and airline flights are delayed somewhere in the nation every day.
Experts warn they may not immediately know whether such problems on New Year's Day are a result of the dreaded Y2K bug or something else.
Journal staff writer Wren Propp and Journal wire services contributed to this report.