Like gawkers to an accident scene, government officials from around the country -- and news media from around the world -- will be in Montgomery County Monday to see whether the year 2000 brings computer-generated chaos.
Technicians will trick the computers that handle traffic, emergency calls and other government services into believing it is Jan. 1, 2000. And disaster planners will try to trip up county workers with emergency problems.
The drill is the first performed by a municipality in real time with computers running, Montgomery officials say, which accounts for the widespread attention it is attracting.
The county is confident the $34 million it has spent over the past three years will avert the Y2K problem, a technological meltdown predicted when computers that use two-digit calendars can't tell the difference between 1900 and 2000.
Montgomery officials are confident enough to play host to the curious, including 10 representatives from the nation's intelligence community.
But what if? What if the fix didn't take in all the computer chips? Or malfunctioning computers in the private sector burden county services? Or a natural disaster strikes on Jan. 1?
"There is an element of risk. Experts are saying there are things we just don't know," acknowledges Bruce Roemer, the county's chief administrative officer. "But I'd rather have a problem on Monday, when it's not rush hour, when it's not midnight, 12-31."
There's more at stake in this public trial run than the county's reputation. Roemer has put top officials on notice that raises and promotions will hinge on their preparation and performance.
The 40 county employees participating in the drill will be asked to react to "worst case" scenarios cooked up by planners.
"It's interesting, but a little scary," acknowledged county spokesman Mike Hall. "All of our department heads had to develop contingency plans for no computers, no telephones. It's an exercise in learning to cope."
Taking notes during the day will be city managers and emergency preparedness directors from places such as Lubbock, Texas.
Like Montgomery, Lubbock is considered on the cutting edge of Y2K solutions. Its government drew national media attention on Sept. 30 when it conducted a disaster drill to deal with the consequences of a simulated computer failure.
"It was a natural extension of our emergency management plan," said Tony Privett, city spokesman. "There's not a tremendous difference between Y2K and what a hurricane can do to your community."
Lubbock, which will hold two more drills, hasn't tested its system as Montgomery County is doing.
"We are always learning things. It doesn't matter how far along you are if everyone else is lagging on compliance. There are no islands with Y2K," Privett said.
Getting everyone to take the problem seriously has been a problem, officials and computer experts said.
Dyan Brasington has been traveling the state as president of the High Technology Council of Maryland, trying to educate companies.
"Everybody's got to do their part," she said. "But because you can't guarantee that people upstream or downstream from you will comply, people think, 'Well why should I go through the effort?' "
That's what worries Montgomery County officials, who say businesses will look to the government for help if they can't deliver services to the public.
"If a supermarket can't run its cash registers or a bank can't run its ATMs, they'll want us to help inform the public and help find alternatives," Hall said.
Those running the exercise don't want to give away too many of the little tricks they will play on participants, except to note that in real time, the county's New Year's Eve bash in downtown Silver Spring will just be breaking up as the clocks strike midnight.
Roemer said the county has established redundant systems during the drill so to ensure that emergency calls will be answered and traffic will flow smoothly.
Pub Date: 12/17/98