Y2K: An Overview

Andrew D. Wright
Beacon Correspondent

Updated: August 1999


          The Millenium. The dawn of a new century or a time of disaster? The press coverage of Y2K has been more optimistic of late, but much is still unknown about what exactly will happen in the new year. One thing is becoming clear however; perceptions about the problem may be as important as the problem itself.

The Problem

          The Y2K problem, in case you have been living on Mars the past six months, is that some computers, computer chips and programs cannot handle dates after December 31, 1999. They variously report a year expressed as "00" as being 1900 or the more clever ones, realizing that there were no computers in 1900, will say it is 1980. This can cause these systems to malfunction when performing a date-related task. Experts cannot agree on what percentage of systems will fail and estimates from responsible sources still vary widely. These systems are not only based in easily accessible computers, but are also "embedded" in systems and devices that are not accessible; encased in concrete or down a deep hole or on the ocean floor or any combination thereof. A non-compliant chip may be part of an overlooked circuit board handling some routine but necessary task in almost any automated process on the planet.

          As if this "Big Bump" weren't enough, the year 2000 has another distinguishing feature: it is a leap year. A year ending in "00" is a leap year only once every 400 years so we can look forward to a "Baby Bump" when some systems which passed January 1, 2000 without problem choke on February 29 - March 1, 2000.

          So what does this mean?

The Facts of Life

          Let's start with some basic facts of life. We are city dwellers. We do not grow our own food or draw our own water. The majority of us rely on a combination of coal-generated electricity and imported fuel oil for our heat. Our disease-carrying wastes are taken away by a complex maze of pipes and pumps and vehicles. We depend upon an intricate network of economic activity for our income to purchase the necessities of life and of course the necessities themselves. Computers are interwoven into every aspect of our lives; one source estimates that each one of us crosses paths with some seventy microprocessors before lunch each day. Some of these are going to fail, with varying and in at least some cases, unforeseeable consequences. This is the bad news.

The Good News

          The good news is that much progress has been made as different parts of our society become Y2K compliant. The majority of the system-critical parts of our society's infrastructure are either now compliant or in an advanced state of becoming compliant. Electric companies and financial services companies such as banks have made particularly good progress, in no small part due to the incredibly high cost of not being Y2K compliant. The Canadian Bankers Association, representing all Canadian chartered banks, has issued a guarantee that all funds and financial records held by them will be unaffected by the Y2K bug and here in Nova Scotia, NS Power was the North American leader in testing their equipment, successfully running their generator plants set to year 2000 dates for extended periods.

Nova Scotia Government

          Government progress has become more difficult to judge; the government Y2K websites are much more slickly designed than before and the terms of reference have been revised or altered. On the Nova Scotia provincial level, the "triage" approach, identifying and remedying the most critical systems first, has been used to categorize various department services as Essential, Mission Critical, Significant, and Interruptible. According to their webpage on Essential and Mission Critical services, they expect these core services to have been made compliant before December, with the majority compliant by this fall. It would be prudent, if you are someone who depends upon a Nova Scotia provincial government service, to consult this site and see where things stand. It is certainly within the realm of possibility some services deemed Interruptible will be.

Halifax Regional Municipality

          The Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Y2K website remains unchanged; their Y2K information online is still in an unwieldy and very graphics intensive form: a slide show consisting of some 21 different pages of slides. They report that they have some 200 people working directly on the problem and a budget of $5.25 million. In the case of HRM, critical systems are listed as 911 and Dispatch, Emergency Measures Organization, Fire and Police services, waste water and storm water, traffic flow and snow/ice removal, core financial processes, Aerotech water, and solid waste. The reported deadline for this first phase, estimated by HRM to cover about three quarters of their Y2K problem, was May 31, 1999. The second phase, covering medium to low risk areas, is scheduled for completion September 30, 1999. The HRM inside workers strike has likely slowed this process down, and new information is not currently available.

Community Information and SPAN

          On the local scene, NS Power reported to the inaugural meeting of the Halifax Y2K Community Action Group that they will have a six week supply of fuel on hand for January 1, 2000 and the Halifax Regional Water Commission reported that their Y2K program should be complete by July 31, 1999. They also plan to have a stockpile of essential water treatment chemicals in reserve and have backup power in place. HRM is also developing a SPAN (Strengthening Preparedness Among Neighbours) program as part of the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO). This program is based on the notion that in the event of a major disaster where emergency services may be tied up elsewhere, neighbours should organize themselves so that local needs can be dealt with by the community itself for up to 72 hours. While funded as part of HRM's Y2K program, EMO Volunteer Services Coordinator Murielle Provost points out that a major ice storm of the kind that crippled Québec could as easily have happened here. Volunteers are needed and Murielle Provost may be reached by phone at (902) 490-7113 and by fax at (902) 490-7114. Emergency Measures Coordinator Barry Manuel can be reached at (902) 490-5400 and by fax at (902) 490-7114.

What Should You Do?

          So what can you as an individual do? The expert advice remains unchanged. While failure of basic services, particularly any extended failures are now considered less likely, no responsible source of information is discounting the notion entirely and most are likening the situation to preparing for a winter storm: if it turns out to be less than expected, great, but if not then the basic preparations listed below will help you when it counts the most.

          The first order of business is to think of what preparations you can make ahead of time. There is no cause for alarm or panic, but some simple precautions can make things easier in case of trouble.

  • Find out if your computer and software are Y2K compliant, especially if you are using it for any kind of accounting or records keeping. It is virtually certain that you will have some kind of Y2K compliance problem, either in programs, operating system or the hardware itself. This includes people who have bought brand new computers. Every version of Microsoft Windows, including Windows 98, requires some kind of Y2K related fix, for example.

    Non Y2K compliant computers and software in the home and in small businesses are likely to be the most widespread computer-related Y2K problem. It is your responsibility to make sure your own systems are okay.

  • Have some basic supplies on hand. There are many references on the web for detailed lists of what you should have in case of any emergency, but you should include: a battery powered radio and spare batteries, water and non-perishable food (enough for up to a week per person), a camping stove or other non-electrical dependent method of cooking food and boiling water, an oil lamp or other non-electrical dependent light source, blankets, warm clothing and a basic first aid kit. Stock any necessary medications you might require. It is likely you will not need all this, but it is good to have it around in any case. If nothing untoward happens, you can use it the next time you go camping.

  • Get to know your neighbours. In a worst-case scenario, you'll be working together. It's best to find out ahead of time what assets or issues there are.

  • Don't leave things to the last minute!

  • Above all else, in case of trouble your reason is your strongest ally. Keep your head.

So What's Going To Happen?

          As the new year draws closer, it is becoming apparent that the biggest part of the Y2K problem may not be technological in nature, but psychological. It is entirely possible that the technological problem may cause service disruptions or disrupt supply chains, but there are always other ways of doing things or other supply routes. Maybe the coffee will come from Brazil for two weeks instead of Colombia or maybe a subscription renewal notice comes billing you for 100 years worth of magazines. Maybe even somehow, somewhere, someone gets killed by a Y2K related technological trap. The biggest Y2K problem is much more likely to be caused by fear than by any technological failure.

          Suppose everyone decides to put away a week's water and they all do it December 31? The increased water flow through the pipes may discolor the water and create panic that there will be a shortage. Last minute grocery hoarding can empty store shelves. Everyone in the country trying to withdraw all their money from the bank can cause chaos. There is the perception in the minds of some that come midnight on December 31 we'll hear the sounds of turbines groaning to a standstill and our society will jerk to a halt, stopped in its tracks by bad calendars. Should I pack a month's food in my remote farmhouse? Two? Will nails still hold wood together? Wheels turn?

          The truth is it will be an interesting weekend. It is very likely that any disruptions in basic services, should they occur at all, will be of short duration. Remember that problems are made to be solved.


You may direct comments or suggestions about this feature to:

Andrew D. Wright,  au141@chebucto.ns.ca


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