The Y2K sentries

The problems could be as large as all of Los Angeles losing power or as small as three people getting stuck in an elevator. Or, as most people hope, nothing could happen at all.

But come midnight Dec. 31, when computer systems all over the world must face the final test for the Year 2000 problem, a group of federal employees will work nonstop to watch for problems and help bring those systems back up and running as soon as possible, if necessary.

With a core staff of about 20 people and representatives from almost every federal agency, the Year 2000 Information Coordination Center (ICC) will stand ready to collect information on any problems and then distribute it to the right people to coordinate a potential emergency response.

President Clinton signed the document that officially brought the center into existence last month, but agencies have been preparing for the center for several months. In April, President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion chairman John Koskinen named retired Army Lt. Gen. Peter Kind, formerly head of the Army's Information Systems Command, as director of the ICC. Last week the center moved into its new office at the corner of 18th and G streets in northwest Washington, D.C.

Overall, information the center distributes will enable everyone affected by potential computer problems to manage their resources and responses better than they would have if they tried to handle the situation on their own, Koskinen said.

"There will be a lot of anecdotal information, and it is important for us to put it in an appropriate context," he said. "Internally, we need to have a coordinated way to understand what the issues are that are occurring so we can determine what the federal government should do."

While the center itself is new, the way it will work is not. "We will be using existing agencies and existing formats as much as we can and supplementing when needed," Kind said.

This reliance on existing structures includes the flow of information. "We grouped the information flow according to the kind of places it will be coming from.... The intent of this is that there is one single point of contact," Kind said.

Because the potential exists for an enormous amount of data to flow through the center, the process to send information back to agencies to make response decisions is being designed and automated well in advance.

The center now is working with agencies to determine baselines on their systems and infrastructure so that the center can determine if changes in, say, electrical output is within normal ranges or if a fluctuation indicates a possible computer failure. But by Dec. 31, most of the process will be modeled on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Civil Disaster Response Group, Kind said.

Under FEMA, most emergencies are handled at the local level, said Mark Wolfson, spokesman for the agency. But because reports also are sent to FEMA, if the problems are serious enough, the agency can step in. At that point, FEMA enlists the help of other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has often assisted on hazardous waste and oil spills, according to EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Piper.

This process will not change for Year 2000-related problems, according to Wolfson. "We'll use the same basic disaster framework to respond to any Y2K problem that comes in as we use when a hurricane hits," he said.To deliver the information to the ICC, FEMA and ICC staff are working to wire the center into FEMA's monitoring and response system so that the center's staff can react to any reports as soon as FEMA receives them.

Other agencies that typically do not deal with emergency situations, including the Agriculture and Commerce departments, are still in the early stages of defining how best to collect data and interact with the ICC.

"It's an interesting challenge to decide who the right contacts are, what information is needed, with what frequency and with how [much detail]," said Anne Reed, chief information officer at the USDA. "We're going through that right now."

Commerce has established a Year 2000 center that will coordinate the departmentwide and agency-level business continuity and contingency plans as well as interface with the ICC, said Lisa Westerback, director of the office of information planning and review at Commerce.

Brainstorming sessions scheduled through September involve each department operating unit and are designed to help firm up plans to coordinate the flow of information internally and externally and to prioritize the systems that need to be checked now, she said.

"The National Weather Service runs 24 hours a we need to know about [any] problem," she said.The ICC also will be watching for Year 2000 problems worldwide, including any foreign system that may be tied into a U.S. computer system. The ICC will rely on the departments of State and Defense to gather information on incidents abroad.

State will receive reports from its embassies and posts in more than 190 countries around the world. From the embassies, the department is asking for basic information such as the status of local power, water supply, traffic, telephone and security systems. "We're trying to keep it simple," said David Ames, deputy CIO for Year 2000 at State. "We don't want to put a burden on the embassies."

At DOD, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they have no specific plans to install additional communications infrastructure to accommodate the ICC, but the agency plans to beef up its watch-standers in the National Military Command Center.

The new DOD Year 2000 Decision Support Activity in Crystal City, Va., will keep track of any potential problems with the critical defense infrastructure, including any cascading problems in which one disabled system leads to problems in other systems, according to Jeff Gaynor, director of Year 2000 operations in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence.

"We have not had cascading problems before.... That's a potential here, and we want to be able to track such events as they develop," he said. "We also want to be able to respond quickly."

The DSA also will serve as the one-stop DOD interface with agencies like FEMA and State to coordinate through an existing Army office any military support requested by U.S. and foreign authorities, Gaynor said.Vice Adm. Robert Natter, the Navy's director of space, information warfare, command and control, said the Navy plans to augment staffing in its command and control centers to deal with any potential Year 2000 problems, adding that the Navy already has put in place contingency plans for any system failures.

Natter said the Navy may be uniquely positioned to deal with failures because the service trains in a shipboard environment to handle breakdowns, such as a loss of electrical power, on a routine basis.

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