ANNAPOLIS High winds, blizzards and ice storms are high on PEPCO’s enemy list. But an even greater foe of the electric utility company may prove to be a bug the Year 2000 bug, that is.
Last week’s unexpectedly harsh ice storm left hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents shivering in the dark for as long as five days. Without sufficient preparation by PEPCO, power failures that could result from an unresolved Y2K computer glitch could prove even more problemmatic.
PEPCO has drawn criticism from officials of Montgomery County the hardest hit area for its handling of the five-day blackout. The experience has left them fearful that the Y2K bug could cause the same kind of damage and inconvenience.
PEPCO officials say they have the situation under control. They are running tests as part of a Y2K plan that must be in place in June.
At the height of the ice storm — which sent tree limbs crashing down on roads and power lines — more than 230,000 PEPCO customers were left without power. Northern and eastern Montgomery county were hit hardest.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 2,500 residents still had no power, but service was to be restored by midnight, according to PEPCO spokeswoman Camille Smith.
Tom Welle, also a PEPCO spokesman, said emergency restoration procedures in place for several years were followed. Now that the crisis has passed, PEPCO officials will determine if changes need to be made in those procedures.
However, Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery, vice chairman of the county’s Senate delegation, wants the utility company to re-evaluate its overtime and personnel policy in light of the length of the blackout.
“Policy must be questioned if people lose power Thursday and don’t get it back until Tuesday,” he said.
Computer systems nationwide are being vaccinated against the Y2K bug. The problem is the two-digit dating system many computers use that assumes the first two digits of the year are one and nine. Without reprogramming, the systems will recognize “00” not as 2000, but as 1900, and may either shut down or malfunction.
This computer glitch has doomsayers predicting widespread power outages and telephone failures. Montgomery County legislators are taking the dire warnings seriously in light of the storm’s blackout.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the county’s delegation, said she hopes the ice storm “served as a wake-up call for PEPCO.”
“Maybe they aren’t as prepared as they should be for all areas, particularly Y2K,” she said.
Delegate Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, vice chairwoman of the county’s House delegation, hopes all utility companies aren’t waiting until the last minute to initiate tests and prepare emergency plans.
“I think we are all apprehensive of the turning of the calendar and what might happen. Certainly PEPCO doesn’t want to have customers without power, so it’s in their best interest to have the computer systems ready to roll over for 2000,” she said.
Neither chamber plans legislation to mandate how PEPCO prepares for the Y2K bug. Ruben and Teitelbaum agree that passing legislation won’t solve any problems. Instead, they plan to meet soon with PEPCO officials to confirm that a plan is in place.
Plans to combat the Y2K problem have been underway since 1995, according to Ken Cohn, PEPCO general manager of computer services.
First, a corporate task force was named and an inventory of computer systems was taken. Then, the problems were fixed through computer programming changes or by replacing computer chips, Cohn said.
Computers are vital to PEPCO operations. They run the power plants that produce electricity for PEPCO customers, and they perform business functions, such as payroll, customer billing and accounting.
PEPCO also has tested company computers by simulating the change from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, to find any glitches. The tests have been conducted daily since last June, Cohn said.
PEPCO plans to meet a June 30, 1999, deadline to have a Y2K plan finalized, Cohn said. The date was set by the North American Electric Reliability Council, which is responsible for Y2K planning for the nation’s electric industry.
While PEPCO officials are working on minimizing the bug’s impact, they are not oblivious to the fact that something could go wrong, Cohn said. Full staff will be in place on Dec. 31 to handle any problems and an emergency plan is in the works.
Cohn declined to comment on the company’s handling of the ice storm. He did say that the ice storm and the Y2K bug are two different types of crises — one unplanned and the other well anticipated.
“The year 2000, however, we know is coming and it won’t take us by surprise. We are confident we have a good plan in place and we’ll reach the June 30 deadline successfully,” he said.