WASHINGTON-The public-safety community received good news last week. When the new millennium arrives, two-way radios will still work.
This message was delivered by the manufacturers of public-safety equipment at a forum sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission to alert public-safety officials about the so-called millennium bug. “The good news, is that when police and fire chiefs pay attention, the answer is that either nothing needs to be done or the solutions are available. The bad news is that not too many public-safety officials are focusing on this right now,” one FCC official said.
The millennium bug refers to the glitch that could occur at the turn of the century because many computers and data chips contain two-field date codes, which could be interpreted by the computer as 1900. Some have predicted this bug could cause catastrophic failures of everything from elevators to telecommunications networks. The FCC began investigating this problem earlier this spring after FCC Commissioner Michael Powell was named to the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion. The FCC’s first public forum on Year 2000 issues came a mere 579 days before the new century.
The enormity of the possible shutdown was made evident by recent outages caused by the Galaxy IV satellite disruption in May and the AT&T Corp. network crash in April.
These two events should be “wake-up calls” for the telecommunications industry at large and public-safety communications officials specifically, warned John Powell of Berkeley, Calif. John Powell’s statements reflect a similar warning that Commissioner Powell made following the Galaxy IV event when he said the paging industry’s reliance on one satellite was “very costly and eye-opening.”
Most of the participants at last week’s round table admitted that many public-safety agencies have yet to focus on the millennium bug and the ones that have, have met resistance from local government officials.
Government officials call this “ugly money,” said Paul Einreinhofer of the Bergen County, N.J. police department. Ugly money is spending money to maintain a certain level of capability but not gaining anything, Einreinhofer added.
Public-safety officials should be worried about 2000 even if their systems work OK because other systems might not work properly, various participants said.
The University of California had to revamp its medical response system following the Galaxy IV crash because it was not aware how much the paging industry was linked to satellite technology, said John Powell. The new plan called for doctors to be ordered to stay inside the hospitals so that internal loudspeakers could be used, he explained. This plan remained in place until the system was sure the pagers were operating properly.
The communications link is a small portion of what public-safety agencies need to examine and how they could be impacted by the millennium bug. The city of Cleveland will spend more than $6 million to prepare for year 2000, said Sandra Gustavson of Cleveland. This figure includes all city agencies.
It is unclear what, if any, action will result from the round table.
FCC officials were pleased to hear manufacturers were all in the process of certifying their equipment to be 2000 compatible and providing solutions where necessary. Calls for a checklist to be used by public-safety agencies were passed onto the manufacturers and consultants.
The FCC is reluctant to develop a checklist because it wants each agency to assess year-2000 readiness. “We don’t want anyone to think that they can turn on a Web page and find a solution” to the millennium bug, said John Clark of the FCC’s public-safety division of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Solutions may need to be tailored to individual circumstances, Clark added.
The roundtable was the first of a series of public forums the FCC plans to hold on year-2000 conversion. The FCC is holding public forums and private meetings. The day after the roundtable, FCC staff held a private meeting with representatives of the cellular and personal communications services industry.