As we head down the homestretch of the Year 2000 countdown, it is becoming clear that the general public is being set up to take the fall for any problems related to Y2K. Public panic and irrational behavior are cited as the true threat of the Millennium Bug situation. It’s as if the faulty computer code was not even an issue.

However, the Year 2000 Computer Problem has always been, and still is, about computer software code that will not operate properly when the year rolls from 1999 to 2000. As recently as a few years ago, virtually all software code running the most important segments of our society were unprepared to handle the century date change. A great deal of repair work has been accomplished since then, but the real question is, have enough critical systems been successfully upgraded to prevent widespread disruptions beginning in January 2000?

To paraphrase a popular political slogan, “It’s the Code, Stupid.” You would be hard pressed to know it, though, based on many recent news stories and pronouncements from political leaders.

In a Nov. 7 article in The Dallas Morning News, the views of a special panel of Y2K experts were summarized: “The panelists said the public’s own actions in response to Y2K rumors or to real problems overseas will be a huge factor in how well Americans make it through the transition to the new millennium.”

An official with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was quoted in the article as saying, “There’s going to be pockets of panic regardless of what we do because there’s just people who live off that kind of thing, and that’s what they want to see happen. They can profit by that.”

An Associated Press story published on Nov. 11 describes the efforts Minneapolis officials are making to shift blame for any Y2K problems onto the public. The chief information officer for Northern States Power Co., Paul Anders, said, “The public has the potential to be its own worst enemy.” (No, Mr. Anders, I believe the lack of electricity in the middle of a frigid Minnesota winter would be the public’s worst enemy.)

The article explains that business and civic leaders “are now warning the public against behavior that could itself lead to problems, like hoarding food and water, using generators improperly or withdrawing huge sums of money from banks.” (Hoarding water? What’s the risk, that someone will accidentally drown in a 55-gallon drum of drinking water?)

As usual, the article simply assumes that the technical challenges of Y2K have been completely solved — if they were ever much of a challenge in the first place — and now the only threat remaining comes from uninformed, panicky citizens who may do something crazy like buy a case of canned tuna fish and an extra cord of firewood.

If the computerized systems at the heart of our high-tech society were truly fixed and 100 percent Y2K-compliant, personal preparedness would be unnecessary. But despite the best efforts of Public Relations specialists who are working overtime drafting “Don’t worry, be happy” press releases, the fact of the matter is, far too many critical systems have yet to be repaired. For example:

  • Half of the nation’s 911 emergency systems are still not compliant. The Clinton administration’s Y2K czar, John Koskinen, said Nov 7, “The last information we have for the 911 systems are that only half of those systems are already Y2K compliant … even with only 53 days left to go.” Koskinen suggested that citizens keep handy the direct dial phone numbers of local fire, police, and ambulance services (which may be of little help, as Koskinen also expressed concern that many small, rural phone companies are not yet ready.)

  • A top consultant calls Atlanta’s Y2K program “Terminally behind schedule.” A widely respected computer consultant, James McCullough, expressed these thoughts in early November: “In my professional opinion, Atlanta’s Year 2000 Program is being poorly managed, months behind schedule, and is not taking the necessary actions to improve the chances of any real success.” City Councilwoman Cathy Woolard said of McCullough’s assessment, “I suspected all along that we were in this kind of shape, but have not been able to confirm it. It’s quite obvious that from the top down, nobody has a clue what they’re doing.”

  • California hospital computers are in big trouble. Officials at the Ventura County Medical Center requested an additional $600,000 in funding on Nov. 2 to hire a special team of computer programmers because installation of a new system is so far behind schedule. “This is the master computer that runs the hospital,” administrator Samuel Edwards said. “It’s a gigantic system, and we’ve been struggling to put it in place.” The system manages patient registration, patient services and coordinates all billing. Apparently hospital officials have not been informed that in the vast majority of cases, adding extra money and manpower to an already late software project only makes the project later.

There are literally dozens and dozens of other instances of similar Y2K project delays (you just never see them in the mainstream press), affecting critical industries such as chemical production, transportation, health care, government, water and sewer systems, oil and gas, education and international trade.

Because the computer code still is not fixed, businesses and government agencies are preparing for disruptions. Many large corporations are setting up “war rooms” from which to manage any problems that occur when the Year 2000 arrives. The federal government just unveiled its Y2K “bunker,” a $40 million operations center two blocks from the White House which will be running 24 hours a day beginning on Dec. 28. This operations center will monitor Y2K developments around the world and offer assistance to problem areas.

You can be sure these emergency centers are not designed to monitor whether individuals purchase extra food supplies or withdraw cash from ATM machines. These centers are designed to deal with major disruptions — disruptions caused by faulty computer code.

These steps by businesses and government agencies to prepare for problems are considered prudent. After all, if a Y2K problem does occur and catches a particular organization by surprise, that firm will surely be accused of negligence for not having an emergency plan.

Why is it, then, that when individual consumers and families take steps to become prepared, it is not considered prudent, it is called panic?

Why are the two situations any different? If a Y2K problem does occur and catches a family by surprise, shouldn’t the head of that household also be accused of negligence for not having an emergency plan to protect his or her loved ones?

If you want to find fault, please don’t point fingers at the consumers and families who are preparing. Blame the organizations that started addressing Y2K too late, didn’t allocate enough resources, or discounted the severity of the problem.

The Year 2000 Computer Problem is about faulty computer code. Public panic, although certainly not a good thing, is a secondary issue. As my colleague Bill Dunn wrote last year, “Y2K panic is like the flu. A Y2K computer meltdown is like cancer. You’d rather not experience either one, but by comparison, one is infinitely worse than the other.”

No matter now much business and civic leaders continue to proclaim that public panic is the biggest threat about Y2K, the real problem is still the code.

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