Beyond & Back: Simulating Our Y2K Future

Bruce F. Romer has been beyond and returned to tell about it. On Dec. 21, 1998, Montgomery County, Md., conducted a full-scale year-2000 exercise. Computer-aided 911 dispatch, traffic light control systems, accounts payable and payroll, and voter registration systems were tested in realtime with clocks rolled ahead. Many lessons were learned, said Romer, the county's chief administrative officer. He knows a little about Y2K, having testified before Congress and briefed the White House Y2K staff. But Romer's range extends beyond the county

by / April 30, 1999 0
Q: You recently participated in a Y2K simulation at the county level in which computer clocks were advanced to test how well they would respond in 2000. What happened?

A: We decided to do a realtime emergency management exercise. We had been at our remediation program for nearly three years, had a growing level of confidence in the work that we had done. We thought it wise to do a realtime test.

Like many large urban counties, we have a very sophisticated emergency management system that we exercise a couple times every year. A lot of the time, we exercise around scenarios based on weather events, terrorist attacks, chemical spills or hurricanes. It occurred to me that, with the importance of Y2K, it would be a very appropriate subject around which to build an exercise. That's why we did it. A third reason, from just a management point of view, is I wanted to be sure that I understood what resources
we might need to have available come Dec. 31, 1999, so that when the calendar turns and the clock turns, we weren't left to just try to find resources, people, equipment, whatever, without having some advanced knowledge of what we might need.

It was a daylong exercise. One feature was the actual advancing of the clock for major systems. We decided to advance the clock on our E911 computer-aided dispatch system and our automated traffic management system. We have about 700 signalized intersections in the county, most interfaced with computer connections. We thought it would be smart to exercise that. We also exercised our accounts payable and voter registration systems. We literally advanced the clock, and the good news is that all of the four systems worked flawlessly and reported no problems.

Q: You conducted these tests during non-peak hours of traffic and usage, but what was the emotional anticipation beforehand?

A: It's interesting. In the planning for the event, I actually had some staff members, including some public information staff, who said: "Do you really want to do this? What if it fails? What if they don't work? Aren't we going to look foolish?"

We had a lot of confidence in what we had done. We had a high level of confidence that they would work. But we took the position that even if something doesn't work, it is far better to have us find that out now, a year in advance of the actual event, in a controlled environment where we weren't jeopardizing public safety. So that was our rationale.

We first turned the clock forward on the E911 system at 3 o'clock or so in the morning to be a truly off-peak time because we did not want to jeopardize public safety. We did the traffic signal roll-ahead at 10:45 in the morning after the morning rush hour. We think that was just a prudent approach, but there is always a risk.

Q: I realize that you might be in a different situation than other less-prepared counties nationwide, but just hearing that there was no problem and it came off flawlessly -- and realizing that there are a lot of people making money off problems associated with Y2K -- do you think there may be a lot of needless Y2K hype?

A: In some quarters, yes, there is an element of overreaction in the sense of some folks saying what should be done. Some individuals are advocating massive stockpiling of material, drastic changes in a person's daily routines. For those suggestions, there is an element of overreaction.

A prudent approach is to be concerned about realistic things that can happen and plan accordingly. For example, we think it's prudent to be certain that our fleet of vehicles is fully fueled and that we have stockpiles of some materials that you would normally have in a winter condition. We use a lot of ice-control salt. So prudence would indicate that we have appropriate stockpiles of those materials on hand and not cut the supply line too close. I think it is a balancing act between some of the extremism and the prudent approach.

Q: Your county is well-prepared, perhaps more than any other county nationwide. What advice do you have for other counties in preparing for Y2K?

A: Several things. First of all, the advice that I have given for actually almost three years now is that the Y2K issue has to be addressed at the very highest level of any organization; it is indeed a management issue. It is far more than just a technical problem, and that local government managers are advised and treat it as such. Assign the responsibility for Y2K attention and remediation to the highest possible level of the organization and have the top executives regularly commit and re-commit the organization to a successful Y2K program. As an example, I have a biweekly monitoring meeting with six key department heads responsible for the Y2K fix. It includes the IT director, which you would assume, but also the personnel, finance, procurement and budget directors. Every other week I try to assess where we are as an organization.

Going beyond that, our chief elected official, our county executive [Douglas Duncan], has made it his business to
regularly underscore the importance of Y2K to the organization.

We hold all of our department heads accountable. They are on a pay-for-performance system and one of the performance measures that we adopted a year ago was the Y2K remediation effort. The performance of our department heads, in part, will be judged on how they handle the Y2K challenge and, therefore, their pay will be based on how well they do.

The other piece of advice is that it is never too late to get started. For any organization that has not done their initial assessment in triage, they should be doing it by now or have it done, and then use that assessment ...


A: Triage: an ordering of importance, setting of priorities of all the systems. As an example, we have 288 systems that we have to fix and we have ordered them in terms of rank priority: Which are the most critical down to the least critical?

My other advice would be to take a look at that ordering of priorities and begin to make some harsh judgments about which systems can realistically be fixed and which can't. For those that can't, develop some contingency plans, some work-arounds, so that even if they are manual work-arounds, a community can be prepared.

Another technique: We sometimes forget to take a look at the other priorities in the organization that might be on the table, as it were, this year and think seriously about deferring some of those activities. We told our department heads there are some projects that may be absorbing resources, particularly IT resources, that have to be put off. Instead of getting a new software system this year, you might have to wait until next year, based on the notion that Y2K is more important. The managers should be prepared to make those difficult decisions because the Y2K challenge is going
to come just once and we need to be successful. Some other challenges we can, in theory, put off.

Q: What contingency plans can actually handle the problems after the clocks change?

A: A lot of things. First of all, a good solid look at manual work-arounds. We experienced that in our building permit system. We actually had a failure when the calendar moved from 1998 to 1999 and the new system wasn't in place yet. The old system failed because our building permits are good for one year. When we started, the computer started issuing building permits on Jan. 3, 1999, and tried to look ahead for the corresponding date 12 months into the future, then couldn't handle the 00 date. As a result, we were unable to issue building permits. The work-around was relatively simple. We reprogrammed the system to issue permits only good for six months as far as the IT system is concerned. Then we manually changed them so that the recipients of the permits could have a permit good for one year.

Another area is where certain operations could simply be suspended for a week or two to allow the calendar change to be absorbed. Depends on the software system, but sometimes it is just as simple as doing without a system for a period of time to help it through the calendar change.

Q: What about the holidays?

A: We are going to activate some emergency management systems for that weekend so that we can be assured that we have the necessary resources immediately at hand. Because it is a holiday weekend, we don't want to run the risk of finding that we need a critical resource or particular individuals, only to find that they are out of town. We have gone so far as to cancel some leave already for folks during that time so that they will be in town.

We are beefing up some of our response capability. Where we might normally have two traffic signal repair crews on duty on a given weekend, we'll now look at doubling that, or more, so that we have adequate response in the event that something like a traffic signal might fail.

Q: So would that be one of the most critical areas to remedy?

A: In terms of systems, that certainly is one we are concerned about. We gave high priority to the traffic signal system. What we are also concerned about, and can't fully predict, is the whole embedded chip issue and what, if any, particular individual [system] might be susceptible to embedded chip failure; things such as our fire apparatus, portable defibrillators and things like that.

Q: Anything you would like to add or emphasize?

A: We had several key elements in the daylong emergency management exercise. One was the realtime event --setting the clocks ahead. Another important element, where we drew in our departments, was a simulated exercise based on "The 13-hour Window." Here
on the East Coast, we will have about a 13-hour advance. Roughly in the area of New Zealand, they will first experience the turnover of the clock from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000. As you move westward across the globe, each time zone will experience that midnight hour for actually 13 hours before it occurs here on the East Coast.

We put together scenarios based on information that might become available from other parts of the world as the clock turns. We gave those scenarios to our department heads and said, as an example, "We are learning that a particular brand of defibrillator failed because it had an embedded chip and in England a particular model of General Electric elevator failed. Do we have any of those?" Another scenario we built around Microsoft Access database having failed.

Our challenge to our department heads was: Now assume that it is Dec. 31, 1999, or Jan. 1, 2000, and you have been told this information. You need to go back to your departments and determine what, if any, impact these events will have on your ability to offer services immediately or come Monday morning when we have to be open for business.

That was a highly useful exercise. It provided ownership for our department heads because each had to go back to his or her department and ask a lot of questions: "How much do we depend on this piece of equipment or this type of software? How does this impact our ability to deliver services?"

It was a very useful part of the exercise and something I recommend to other managers.

Q: We have been hearing that the technical side of Y2K conversion will be done by mid-1999. Does that sound accurate with regards to Montgomery County?

A: Yes. Our absolute drop-dead date is July, to allow for a little bit of final clean-up and fine-tuning. We expect to have all 288 systems certified by July.

Q: Any employment contingency plans for all those technical people and consultants working on the Y2K challenge? Or will they all become jobless?

A: We have relied heavily on contract help so those contractors will presumably go back into the private sector and continue to be productive, perhaps in other forms.

Q: So there is life after Y2K

A: I believe so. The other thing we are going to be doing in the balance of 1999 is devoting our efforts to community-awareness activities. That is something that has always been a part of our program. We are getting it launched now.

Thankfully, we are getting additional media attention to the issue, assisting in the community-awareness element of our program. We are doing a series of community meetings where we are inviting our municipalities, explaining what we are doing. We are also preparing to publish and mail an informative brochure to every household in the county. Kind of a "Here's what your county is doing to address the Y2K issue" and "Here is what you can do as a homeowner or a neighborhood or civic association to be properly prepared for Y2K" [brochure] but without overreacting. We don't want to be alarmist. We want to present a balanced view.

The other part of our community awareness is to speak to small businesses and nonprofits to share our expertise, where we've learned, then underscore the importance of the Y2K problem.

Q: You've underscored the importance testifying before Congress.

A: I testified on behalf of the National Association of Counties before a special committee on Y2K in the Senate. I have testified about our efforts and the readiness of counties nationally.

People, organizations and governments are now much more aware of the importance of this issue. A year ago, denial was still going on in governments that this isn't a problem. The more we highlight these issues, the more local governments realize that there are issues there, and they need to take a serious look at their operations to determine for themselves what susceptibility they have.

Q: Are we as a nation of local, county and state communities, in that bad of shape?

A: I think continued caution and prudence is very much in order. This is an issue that should be looked
at from a management perspective every day until the end of the year, just to be sure that everything that can
be done has been done to assure a smooth transition. That is part of our obligation when we take our positions to maintain the public's safety and general welfare. This is part of it because of the intense reliance on information technology -- something we have bought into and we now have the responsibility of making it work.

Q: Where will you be and what will you be doing Dec. 31?

A: I will most likely be right here in our emergency operations center, which we are going to have in readiness just to be sure that, if there are any unforeseen events, we are activated and ready to respond. Not much of a party, but I will be surrounded by our department heads and we will just be in a state of readiness, not a state of partying.

Victor Rivero is editor of Converge, a sister publication of Government Technology focusing on education technology. Email