"Based on current assessments, the sky is not falling," Mike Walker, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a group of state and local emergency-management officials here. "There is no indication that Y2K will result in national disruption of America's basic infrastructure."
Such reassuring words were echoed several times yesterday in one of a series of Y2K workshops that FEMA is holding across the country. The two-day workshops are closed to the public. They are meant to help emergency officials, primarily on the state level, prepare for Y2K so that they can assist their county and local counterparts.
FEMA would get involved with Y2K problems only if smaller governmental agencies exhaust their options, officials said. "All disasters happen at the local-government level. When it gets to where we are, you're kind of at the last resort," said Lacy E. Suiter, FEMA's executive associate director for Response and Recovery.
Y2K refers to the problem that can occur with computers and high-tech devices that are programmed to use two digits to represent the year. If not fixed, some systems may read 00 as 1900 rather than 2000, causing them to fail or produce inaccurate data.
The FEMA workshop, which ends today at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, has drawn emergency managers, fire marshals and Y2K coordinators from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
After hearing generally upbeat progress reports yesterday from several key federal agencies, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the approximately 160 delegates retreated into closed-door sessions to discuss action strategies. Among the topics were how to control rumors and maintain public confidence, and how to handle system failures.
Speakers said the nation's energy, telecommunications, transportation, financial and health sectors were generally in good shape for Y2K, although there are trouble spots with small businesses and small towns, and internationally.
For example, Janet K. Benini, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Emergency Transportation, said she was concerned about the Y2K status of small transit agencies and international maritime and airline systems.
Jim Markis, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, said that while the nation's water and waste-handling systems should experience few problems, the chemical industry, especially small companies, had gotten off to a slow start.
He said the EPA had just issued an alert to chemical companies to get them to devote more effort to the Y2K problem. Also, he said, the EPA has waived penalties against companies that violate environmental restrictions while testing systems for Y2K readiness. Some agencies offered a glimpse into the contingencies they have in place in case the worst happens.
The Coast Guard, for example, plans to use cutters as back-up communications hubs. If radar systems fail, it will have extra ships in place to observe vessel traffic, Benini said.
Brian P. Carney, a representative of the National Communications System, which handles emergency telecommunications for the government, said NCS was working on a system to warn U.S. telecommunications firms if nations in earlier time zones, such as New Zealand, begin experiencing problems when 2000 rolls around.
NCS is one of many agencies planning to have emergency teams on duty the night of Dec. 31. Carney joked that he would end up playing cards that night, rather than dealing with Y2K crises.