As the world marches steadily toward the Y2K problem, congressional watchdogs have clarified the challenges average citizens are likely to face.
"Y2K" (the year 2000) refers to the inability of many older computers and programs to distinguish between 2000 and 1900. The resulting foul-ups could affect everything from banking to medical records to safety in the air and at nuclear plants.
Rep. Steve Horn (R) of California, who follows the issue for the House, says the federal government is doing better at preparing for next Jan. 1. He's raised Washington's grade from a D to a C-plus. While several agencies get A's, Mr. Horn gives the departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services a C, while State and Transportation fail.
A draft Senate report, meanwhile, finds that the airways will probably be safe, nuclear weapons won't be fired accidentally, and most electric grids will stay on line. But the report's authors, Sens. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah and Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, say people should prepare as they would for severe weather. While cautioning against panic, they suggest storing bottled water and canned goods and saving printouts of financial records, just in case.
Of serious concern, the senators say, is that 80 percent of the nation's medical offices and 64 percent of hospitals are not prepared for the "millennium bug." In some cases, medical records could be lost and sophisticated equipment shut down. Some 50 percent of American small businesses are also reportedly unprepared. The Senate March 2 passed a bill to provide loan guarantees for small businesses to get their equipment in order.
Overseas disruptions are likely to be far greater. These could impact the US economy. The Pentagon is already consulting with Russia about its missile-warning systems. Russian nuclear plants and fuel pipelines are also vulnerable, according to a CIA study. So are Chinese power, banking, and phone systems; many oil exporters; and major shipping ports.
The senators back a plan to bring US, Russian, and other nuclear-weapons experts together to ensure computer failures do not lead to mistaken missile launches next Jan. 1. The Pentagon is already working with Russia. That's a prudent move.
Individuals can do their part:
*Insist that state, provincial, and local officials address the problem in their government agencies.
*Ensure that home computers and other equipment get software fixes to ease the transition.
All major hardware and software companies provide relevant information on their Web pages. Users should check now to see if their machines and programs are Y2K compliant.