Can emergencies handle Y2K?

Senators are expected to call for a system that would dispatch warnings if failures in the nation's emergency services occur.

Two U.S. Senators are expected to call for the establishment of an international Y2K early warning system to notify emergency management entities of progress on the technology problem and possible public safety threats it might cause.

Senators Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) are expected to make the request at tomorrow's hearing of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem on the Y2K threat to the nation's emergency services, which include police, fire, emergency medical, and disaster response assistance.

Committee staffers tell CNET News.com that Sen. Bennett, chairman of the committee, and Sen. Dodd, vice chairman of the committee, are expected to send legislation to Congress that would ask Federal Emergency Management Agency to be the source of the early warning system. FEMA will be asked to organize a coordinating group to set up the system.

Although details are still in the works, the system will send out early warnings if failures in the nation's emergency services occur, one staffer said. In an effort to get the early warning system off the ground as soon as possible, the committee hopes to have the legislation in Congress by next week.

Tomorrow's hearing will be the first congressional examination of the institutions responsible for public safety as to their preparation and readiness for Year 2000. The committee will assess the readiness and ability of governments at the federal, state, and local levels to continue to provide vital emergency services related to the Year 2000.

Up to now, most examinations of emergency services have been happening on the state level. One of the most covered in the media was the one conducted by the state of New York.

State Comptroller H. Carl McCall conducted a study and put out a report last month that found few New York State localities are prepared to tackle the sorts of computer problems posed by the Year 2000 bug.

"Jail security systems, 911 emergency systems, payroll, even traffic lights depend on technologies which must be checked and rechecked to ensure they are working properly for the Year 2000," he said in a statement during the release of the report.

His auditors, who surveyed the localities, found that while 100 percent of the counties who answered the survey were working on the problem, 26 percent of cities, 54 percent of towns, and 48 percent of villages had yet to make plans. Further 61 percent of fire districts had not yet dealt with the problem.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania has completed more than 95 percent Y2K remediation efforts, which includes its public safety and emergency services, according to estimates released by the state in July.

Because software manufacturers, to save space, used only the last two digits to mark the year, at the turn of the century computers may mistakenly read the year 2000 as a meaningless "00" or 1900. That could cause computers to malfunction or shut down.

The committee will also examine the role of FEMA (federal emergency management agency) in coordinating execution of the federal response plan, as well as threats to all public safety communications links and other information technology--vital computerized dispatch of 911, fire and law enforcement responses, and emergency service records, according to a statement released by the committee today.

As an indication of how important the issue is to the committee as well as the Clinton administration, John Koskinen, the chairman on the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, will be the first panelist at the hearing tomorrow.

Koskinen is expected to discuss the council's role in developing contingency plans with federal agencies and how the government will respond to outside threats, according to a spokesman from the President's council.

In related news, a new report released today by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns of global economic vulnerabilities to the Year 2000 problem, and urges governments to play a stronger role in promoting international cooperation, awareness, and action to deal with the technology problem.

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