MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

The dreaded Y2K

A cautious few prepare for disaster

D’ARCY JENISH December 28 1998
MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

The dreaded Y2K

A cautious few prepare for disaster

D’ARCY JENISH December 28 1998

The dreaded Y2K

MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

YEAR 2000

A cautious few prepare for disaster

D’ARCY JENISH

John Burns is celebrating New Year's Eve by taking his wife, Andrea, to the long-running hit musical Les Misérables in Toronto. But he has already told his wife he won't be around next year to help her welcome the year 2000. He'll be at the office. Burns, a vice-president of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, is in charge of the bank’s so-called Y2K (for Year 2000) task force set up in April, 1995, to deal with the inability of some older computer software programs to read dates beyond Dec. 31, 1999. The problem, if uncorrected, could force the bank to handle all transactions on paper—and even prevent customers from making deposits or withdrawals. The CIBC task force, which peaked at 1,000 employees in October, has spent almost $200 million revising software, and Burns expects the work to be completed early in the new year. Nevertheless, he and a few fellow workers will be on duty, watching for computer glitches, as the 1900s come to an end. “I hope I’m sitting there bored to tears,” he says. “If things go perfectly, we’ll be breaking out the champagne.”

Fear of Y2K, the international acronym for the so-called millennium bug, has spawned many disaster scenarios. Some doomsayers predict the failure of hundreds of vital, computer-dependent enterprises around the world, including airlines and power stations as well as banks, temporarily crippling national economies. And their talk has clearly had an impact on Canadians. According to the Maclean’s/CBC News poll, 84 per cent of the public is aware of the year 2000 problem, and 71 per cent believe it will cause computers to malfunction or fail. Furthermore, a significant minority of poll participants say they will be taking special precautions—stocking up on food, arranging for an alternative energy source, withdrawing extra money from the bank or avoiding air travel around the turn of the new year. “I don’t think there is going to be a meltdown,” says Dorothy Young, 53, who runs an Ottawa-based high-tech consulting firm with her husband, Andrew. “But I think there are going to be substantial problems. And I wouldn’t be flying to India or Africa over the new year.”

Poll participants are more cautious about air travel than other potential problems. Thirty-seven per cent say they will not fly on Jan. 1, 2000. By comparison, 30 per cent say they will withdraw extra money before the year’s end in case the banks are affected, 25 per cent say they will arrange to have an energy source not dependent on computers available, and 20 per cent say they will stock up on food. On every issue, women are more cautious than men. One-quarter of the female participants, compared with 15 per cent of men, say they will buy more food than usual. And 40 per cent will avoid flying, compared with 34 per cent of men.

Most likely to be aware of the Y2K problem: university graduates (96%) Least likely: respondents over 65 (71%)

Percentage planning to take measures to cope with potential Year 2000 problems:

• Avoid flying on Jan. 1,2000:37

• Withdraw more money than usual before Jan. 1,2000:30

• Seek sources of energy not dependent on computers: 25

• Buy more food than usual before Jan. 1,2000:20

• None of the above: 38

Responses also varied along geographical lines. With respect to flying, Prairie residents rank as most concerned, and Quebecers the least. As for stockpiling food, 24 per cent of the Prairie respondents, but only nine per cent of Quebecers, say they will. On withdrawing extra money, the range is 37 per cent to 20 per cent, respectively. But the gap narrows—to 27 per cent versus 24 per cent—when it comes to seeking alternative energy sources, an indication that Prairie dwellers and Quebecers alike—particularly after January’s ice storm— take their winters seriously. “I’m most concerned about the power being shut down,” said DelmarToth, 36, an agricultural engineer in Humboldt, Sask., 110 km east of Saskatoon. “I wouldn’t think much of sitting around for a few hours or a few days without power if it’s -45° outside.”

Residing in an isolated community has prompted Tami Bourassa, 28, and her 29-year-old husband, David, to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The couple live with their three-year-old, Ty, in Powell River, B.C., a community of about 20,000 some 125 km and two ferry rides northwest of Vancouver. Bourassa, a part-time educational assistant who works with special needs children, is buying a few extra canned goods each week. She and her husband have bought a gas lamp, and are planning to buy a wood stove. ‘We need to be able to cook and stay warm if the power goes out,” she says. “We’re taking whatever steps we can to be ready.”

Other poll participants are less concerned about the potential Y2K problems. Sarah Townsend, a 19-year-old planning student at the College of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, N.S., 125 km west of Halifax, believes the issue has been overblown. “I find it difficult to accept that computers will crash and leave us with no power, no lights and no heat,” she says. Another respondent, Austin Wells, 52, of Mount Pearl, Nfld., adjacent to St. John’s, says the banks could be scrambling for cash if customers who normally shop with credit and debit cards suddenly make large withdrawals. “Everything is done on plastic these days,” says Wells, who manages the paint department of a local building supply store. “It could be a real hassle for the banks if everybody suddenly wants cash.”

For many Canadians, including some poll participants, Y2K has become a fact of life in the workplace. Bobbie Sheppy, 41, works as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit of a Calgary hospital, where computers regulate most of the life-support equipment, including respirators, various monitoring devices and some intravenous drip machines. Every part of the hospital has set up committees to develop Y2K contingency plans. Sheppy is part of her unit’s. In the case of a computer-related power failure, her department will, among other things, double the number of nurses on duty and operate many machines manually. As planning continues, Sheppy says she is confident that patients will receive the care they require.

Over the next 12 months, questions will inevitably arise about who has solved their Y2K problems, and who has not. In fact, Industry Canada has already conducted two large surveys to determine the state of private sector preparedness. One done in October, 1997, revealed that 45 per cent of Canadian companies had taken some action, according to Douglas Drever, head of communications for Industry Canada’s Year 2000 task force. By May, that number had risen to almost 70 per cent. The industry department attempted to boost awareness of the problem by mailing out three million brochures on the subject in September, and it has set up several programs to assist companies. Yet, early in December, Auditor General Denis Desautels reported that several federal departments may not have their Y2K problems solved on time, including those responsible for food inspections, commercial border crossings, Canada Pension Plan cheques and old age security payments.

Within the private sector, small to medium-sized companies are most likely to be unprepared, according to David Marshall, director of software research with the Toronto-based consulting and marketing firm IDC Canada. He estimates that up to 60 per cent of smaller firms may be totally unprepared at this point. Many simply cannot afford to hire the outside consultants required to fix the problem, which could shut down their accounting systems as well as their cash registers. Marshall believes that governments at all levels will be hard-pressed to overhaul their software programs by the end of 1999 because the Y2K problem has led to a serious shortage of informa-

tion technology professionals. “Government pay scales are lower than industry standards,” he said, “and they’re losing people faster than they can replace them.”

By comparison, senior executives with most major private sector organizations—financial institutions, telephone companies and airlines, for example—insist that they will have the problem solved by early 1999. Scott Mullin, vice-president of public affairs with the Canadian Bankers Association, says the chartered banks had all begun tackling the issue by mid-1995 and have so far spent close to $1 billion on it. Raymond Thornton, Year 2000 vice-president with the Royal Bank, who had more than 700 people working on the project at one point, describes it as “the largest single undertaking” in the institution’s history.

Representatives of Canada’s commercial aviation industry are equally confident that their business will be operating normally on New Year’s Day, 2000. Rie Bentkowski, Y2K project manager with Calgary-based Canadian Airlines International, said most modern aircraft do contain some date-sensitive equipment, such as navigational aids, that would be vulnerable to the problem. But the airline has budgeted almost $30 million, he says, to modify or replace programs and computer chips required to run onboard equipment, as well as those that operate the reservations system, issue boarding passes and allocate seats on each flight.

The country’s air traffic control system, now operated by the Ottawa-based company Nav Canada, also had to be overhauled to ensure that planes could continue to fly. Y2K project manager David Honkanen said that seven area control centres, located from Vancouver to Gander, Nfld., keep track of aircraft between takeoff and landing. Each centre contains 150 computerized systems, including navigational aids, communications equipment and radar processing devices. Nav Canada’s team of technicians has checked 1.5 million lines of computer code, and made the necessary program changes. Honkanen has so much confidence in the work that has been done that he says he will catch an early evening flight from Toronto to London on Dec. 31,1999. That will put him somewhere over the Atlantic at the stroke of midnight, demonstrating his faith in his contention that “Y2K is the greatest non-event in history.”

Percentage who expect the millennium bug to cause a significant problem: Men: 29 Women: 42