I don’t consider myself a pessimist, yet each year
I spend a sizable portion of my income on house, car, life
and medical insurance. I do this because things happen regardless
of how cautiously we lead our lives. Having grown beyond the
illusions of invulner-able youth, I make reasonable plans
for possible disasters and then relax, hoping I over-prepared.
How do I decide a reasonable level of preparation for these
events? By doing simple risk analysis and examining historical
statistics. I could die tomorrow, many people will, so it’s
not unreasonable to plan for my family’s well-being.
Nor is it absurd to plan for a car accident, illness or fire
to name only a few events which might befall myself and my
family. I plan sensibly for the future according to past and
Then along comes Y2K, also known as the “millennium
bug” or the year 2000 computer problem. I am faced with
the reasonable question, “What levels of precaution
and preparation are necessary or sufficient to cope with this
unprecedented and unquantifiable risk?” The honest answer
is, I don’t know. Nor, truthfully, does anyone else.
The day the future becomes easy to predict, it’s history.
What do we know about Y2K? There are risks. Problems found
in navigational aids, medical equipment and nuclear-power
plants are offered as hard evidence that the risks are real,
although they may vary greatly. The problem with navigation
aids would prevent some planes from taking off, it would not
cause a crash. Some, a small, perhaps even tiny, percentage
of medical devices are affected by Y2K. As a patient, going
into surgery, how small a percentage do you consider insignificant?
A monitoring system shut itself down at a nuclear-power plant
in the United States during Y2K testing. It did not cut off
power, but the question remains how long should a nuclear-power
plant operate if the ability to monitor it is even slightly
impaired? And what are the economic consequences if authorities
decide to shut it down until they can monitor it properly?
These are some of the risks that have been identified. If
we choose to ignore these problems, we act irresponsibly.
It is impossible to locate and remove all risks worldwide.
Some multinationals have admitted they will not fix everything
in time. What exactly does “they will not get everything
fixed on time” mean? Again, no one knows. It depends
on once the systems fail, can they be repaired in time to
avoid the consequences of the failure?
So there are risks associated with Y2K, unquantifiable, but
real. How much preparation is reasonable in light of these
risks? The answer depends on the level of Y2K activity in
your economic environment, your current level of techno-logical
dependence and your pre-existing level of preparedness for
other non-Y2K disruptive events.
I live in a town located just outside Toronto, Ontario, a
technologically-dependent city in North America. I believe
the critical infrastructure I depend on – financial,
telecommunications and power companies – are now taking
the problem seriously and acting appropriately.
In addition, since Toronto does experience snow in winter,
self-reliance for short periods of time is neither unusual
nor unreasonable. A perspective supported by the 1998 ice
storm which disrupted power, services and travel in Montreal
and the surrounding region for a period of two to three weeks.
So to what degree should I “prepare” for Y2K?
Because of the ice storm, I am already prepared to handle
a power outage lasting two to three weeks. I can also cope
with an inability to travel for that period of time. For myself
and my family, I will do nothing more than what I’ve
already done to prepare myself for mundane events like ice
storms. In my opinion, a two to three week level of preparation
is more than sufficient to cope with whatever hardships I
believe Y2K is capable of imposing on my community. But not
everyone lives in “my” community.
Other communities have done little, if anything, to address
Y2K. Areas such as the Far East, Russia, Western Europe, Central
Africa or Italy come to mind. In these areas, two to three
weeks’ preparation might not be sufficient. Their Y2K
problem is different and definitely, perhaps even significantly,
worse. And again, there are communities which fall somewhere
between negligent and proactive such as South America, Spain,
Germany and the Caribbean.
In each of these areas, from the proactive, to the tardy
and then the laggards, a different level of preparedness is
called for, depending on the local circumstances. It is simply
not possible to provide a single advisory which will cover
all appropriate levels of preparedness.
What are the primary issues? The iron triangle of finance,
telecommunications and power are of immediate concern. Why?
Because even temporary disruptions here, have swift and far-reaching
consequences. One form of preparation, perhaps the best, is
to identify as clearly as possible what risks your community
is facing. Have the banks addressed Y2K? Have telecommunications
been secured? What evidence is there to suggest local power
supplies are Y2K compliant?
“Local power supplies” unfortunately include
nuclear power plants. If there is no evidence of sincere efforts
to ensure this “device” is Y2K compliant, then
attempts must be made to either perform that task, or shut
down the plant during the transition period. This type of
“preparation” is significantly less time consuming,
less costly, less disruptive, than dealing with the aftermath.
The next area of concern is supply. If food or pharmaceuticals
are not available locally, then is the supply chain at risk?
Ground transportation poses a lesser risk than either sea
or air shipments, but we must examine all of the supply chain,
including production, to see if they are at risk.
The answers to these questions provide the best guidance
as to what level of preparations are necessary and sufficient.
In summary? Y2K risks are real, but they are different from
locale to locale, demanding on-site evaluations and judgements
of reasonable, necessary and sufficient levels of preparation.