Biggest scare will be people's reaction - but city, county ready
Missoula's city and county governments are about as ready as they can be for most kinds of Y2K calamities, but local officials aren't so sure the public is prepared.
"We don't anticipate any large problems," Office of Emergency Management Director Bill Silverman said at a briefing for Missoula-area elected officials Wednesday. "Y2K has forced us to re-evaluate our preparedness status. We feel pretty comfortable."
Y2K Planning Team member Kate Pope said that when officials started 10 months ago to get ready for the anticipated New Year's Day problems, they realized the Missoula city government had no contingency plans for dealing with run-of-the-mill disasters like ice storms or a fire in City Hall. If the city wasn't ready to handle that with all its public safety resources, Pope said, how many private citizens might be similarly unprepared to go three days without power or communications?
"Our plan will be in place by mid-December," Pope said. "But who has a 72-hour survival kit? And we need to start looking out for our neighbors, the elderly or the single mothers with kids who might need help in a disaster."
The Y2K Planning Team has been looking at ways a predicted major computer failure on Jan. 1, 2000, might affect the Missoula area.
The Y2K bug, as its often called, is a widely held suspicion that many computers and machines with computer chip controls might malfunction when their internal calendars switch from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000. That's because most computers built before the late 1990s only read year dates by their last two digits: 1999 shows up as 99. The computers may believe that 2000 is 1900, causing all kinds of mathematical problems in date-sensitive computer functions.
Y2K experts suspect some computers may simply give incorrect answers in certain situations, like bank loan records. More pessimistic researchers fear the affected computers might shut down, paralyzing whatever machine, communications network or power supply they control.
For their part, the city and county have updated practically all of their computer and radio equipment, installed new emergency power generators and drilled departments in how to provide public services without electricity or from a new location. The county's 9-1-1 center has tested its communications systems. And law enforcement, fire and medical offices are readying extra personnel for the event.
Many of those systems have already had real-world tests. The city's new generator filled in as planned on Halloween when windstorms knocked out power in parts of Missoula. And a new generator system at the Wastewater Treatment Plant prevented an unexpected shutdown of pumping equipment.
Public utilities are also ready for Y2K, according to Jack Hunt of the Missoula Electric Cooperative.
"Our main business is service restoration," Hunt said. "Bonneville Power and the Montana Power Company have done all their computer testing, equipment testing and replacement. We have the capability to be operated manually, nationwide. We'll be getting much closer to operating at that capability level during the Y2K event."
Hunt added that disasters can and probably will happen.
"Somewhere, a tree will fall on a power line," he said. "Somewhere a car will hit a power pole. There will be service interruptions. We'll be there."
Mayor Mike Kadas said the Y2K planning had paid off with benefits in better local government coordination, equipment maintenance and general due diligence that would last far beyond any New Year's Day incident. And he noted that effort may be responsible for the relatively low public concern about Y2K.
"I think the value of this effort is reflected in the low attention level," Kadas said. "We've done a good job, and people are starting to think there'll be no big problem."