What If It Doesn't Work?

So what do you do when you're in the fourth year of your Year 2000 remediation program? What else can you tackle after you've spent more than $40 million to fix 292 systems for the county government?

What's left to recommend after preaching that the Year 2000 date change is not a technical problem but a management issue? What do you do when you have a degree of confidence that you'll be ready when the calendar turns? How do you react when some folks are calling you a leader among local governments in the Year 2000 arena?

What do you do?

Road trip.

The fourth and final phase of Montgomery County, Md.'s multiyear, agencywide effort always was planned to be some sort of public awareness campaign. But it wasn't until mid-1998 that we gave it some flesh. Montgomery County, like many local governments, has a highly sophisticated emergency management system that we exercise a couple of times each year. Devoting one of these exercises to a Year 2000-based scenario seemed to make sense. And because no one that we knew of had done real-time, end-to-end testing, we decided to devote Dec. 21, 1998, to a day-long emergency management exercise of our capabilities to survive Dec. 31, 1999.

And we decided to invite our citizens and the media to watch.

"But what if it doesn't work?" the county's chief elected official asked. After all, we were proposing to set the computer clocks ahead on systems we felt we had made Year 2000-compliant: our E-911 computer-aided design system, the accounts payable system, our entire 700-intersection traffic signal management system and the voter registration rolls. "All of this in the full glare of the media spotlight," the official wondered. "Are you sure you want to do this? How long have you been working here, not counting today?"

Well, we reasoned, if our confidence was misplaced, better to have these systems fail a full year ahead of 1/1/00-and in a controlled environment-than to subject our citizens to inconvenience or chaos come New Year's Eve.

What happened? Everything worked flawlessly.

Our comfort level was enhanced by demonstrating our Year 2000 readiness. But we also were able to test our contingency plans, identify public information needs and determine what resources may be necessary on Dec. 31, 1999. After all, we don't want to be searching for personnel, equipment or other assets on New Year's Eve when we can plan ahead and position them.

However, this exercise's real dividend was external. Because we invited everyone to watch and learn, we contributed significantly to our community's awareness of the Year 2000 as a real issue. Our citizens' confidence that their local government is on top of this issue was bolstered. A message was sent that the Year 2000 can be approached in a businesslike way without the hyperbole that sometimes surrounds its mention.

Montgomery County's aggressive community outreach is continuing with a year-long series of town meetings about the Year 2000, a speakers' bureau and our just-published "Home Guide to Emergency Preparedness: Preparing a Plan for Emergency Events and Y2K." The guide was produced in eight languages and distributed to all 300,000 households and businesses in the county. We've also formed a Y2K Community Awareness Advisory Council and are producing TV programming about the issue.

On the Year 2000 front-and emergency management in general-it is a mistake to say little. Holding back on community outreach and public information can alarm residents and businesses. There are plenty of others who are talking about the Year 2000 bug, and some of the rhetoric is less than responsible. If you leave a void in your citizens' understanding of the Year 2000, there will be plenty of others there to fill it. We don't want our challenge to be undoing damage done by alarmists.

Our best offense in handling the Year 2000 issue is a well-informed citizenry. This is not the time to keep them in the dark.

-- Bruce Romer is chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, Md.

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