Back to Magazine
Homepage

Sound advice on the
doomsday bug

By Peter de Jager

Peter de Jager is an internationally recognized international expert on the year 2000 computer problem. For the past eight years, he has been working to raise awareness of the issue and convince governments and businesses to act. Red Cross, Red Crescent asked him to consider the risks associated with the “millennium bug“ and the preparations required to respond to them.

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 surrounding experience.

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.

What is “Y2K” and why are people concerned?

The year 2000 technology problem, or bug, as it is sometimes called, was created in the early days of computers when memory in computers was scarce and expensive. Programmers took short cuts whenever possible to save space. Instead of using a four-digit code for year dates, a two-digit entry was used. This practice persisted, long after the need for saving space was eliminated. The two-digit code also was used in embedded chips, which exist in many devices that control processes, functions, machines (like cars), building ventilation systems, elevators, and fire and security alarm systems, which are part of our everyday lives.

When the year 2000 comes, programs that have been coded with two-digit year codes will not distinguish between the years 2000 and 1900. If the programme includes time-sensitive calculations or comparisons, results are unpredictable. No one knows what problems may occur, how widespread they may be, or how long they will last. The good news is that governments, banks and other financial institutions, retail businesses and every other group affected by this problem have been working to resolve it, and a great deal of progress has been made.

When could Y2K problems happen? Most people anticipate Y2K problems may happen at midnight on 31 December 1999. Many experts predict that the problem is more likely to be a persistent one over a few years rather than a single “crash”.

This text comes from an American Red Cross brochure on Y2K preparedness, which can be found on their website: www.redcross.org. The Federation has organized a Y2K task force to take a broad look at the implications of all dimensions of the “problem”. National Society input to the task force is most welcome, contact John Black, Director, Information Systems, email address black@ifrc.org. Additional information is available under heading “The ICRC and the transition to the year 2000” on http://www.icrc.org.

Peter de Jager
More information about Peter de Jager can be found on his website: www.year2000.com.



Top | Contact Us | Credits | Webmaster



2003 | Copyright