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THE GLITCHING HOUR

No one expects the banks to shut down.

No one expects the lights to go out.

And no one, absolutely no one, expects 911 to fail in the event of a crime, crisis or international incident.

So why are 60 local people spending New Year's Eve at a command post in a location that's top-secret?

They're preparing for the worst.

Every agency and company with a role in providing life-and-death services -- from the FBI and the Army National Guard to Niagara Mohawk and Rural/Metro Ambulance -- will join for one night, under one roof, for one reason.

Y2K.

"We're hoping nothing happens," said Michael Walters, Erie County's commissioner of emergency services. "We're also in the business of knowing something could happen."

Is Y2K much ado about nothing?

Not when you consider that billions of dollars -- that's right, billions -- was spent on preparing our computerized society for the year 2000.

And all because of a simple date change.

Come midnight Friday -- the most anticipated New Year's of the modern era -- people will know for sure whether the massive Y2K preparations here and across the world worked.

If not, the consequences are almost unthinkable.

Hospitals shutting down. Prisons at risk. Homes without heat and electricity.

The horror stories are well-known, but right now they're just that -- stories. Yes, there may be disruptions, but by most accounts, they should be minor.

"My family is treating it as a snowstorm," said Kenneth Turner, director of emergency services for the Red Cross in Buffalo. "You know it's going to happen. The only question is: How long will it last and how much snow will you get?"

Turner's snowstorm analogy is a popular one. Experts are advising people to prepare for some inconvenience, but say the prospect of a crisis is remote.

There's a strong belief that the bread-and-butter services we've come to rely on -- food and water, heat and electricity, hospitals and police, banks and mutual funds -- will survive Y2K with barely a misstep.

That's here. Overseas, there are some very real worries and concerns.

"There are going to be cities in Russia that will absolutely go dark," said Lewis Mandell, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Some countries, most notably Russia and Pakistan, have done little to prepare for Y2K and expect to suffer disruptions in all kinds of service.

Mandell thinks that Western New York will fare much better but that everyone will be inconvenienced in some way.

"Everyone will have Y2K problems," he said. "Things are going to go wrong enough to affect everyone."

Food

People are preparing for Y2K.

Supermarkets across Western New York have begun to see increased purchases of canned foods, bottled water and other nonperishable goods.

This Y2K "stocking up" comes as no surprise to grocers, who anticipated the demand and have extra supplies on hand.

Locally, both Tops and Wegmans, the area's dominant food retailers, have printed pamphlets informing customers they have done everything possible to ensure they will be open for business on Jan. 1 and beyond.

"We have been working on year 2000 issues since 1997," said Steve Odland, president and chief executive officer of Tops Markets. "As a result of our commitment, Tops was fully Y2K-compliant well in advance of Jan. 1."

Both food sellers see consumer panic as the biggest potential problem. In its customer-targeted Y2K brochure, Wegmans discusses the problems that would be triggered by paranoid people who start hoarding food.

"If all those people buy all of the groceries and essentials in the neighboring stores, there will be shortages," the pamphlet warns. "This problem is not a Y2K problem, but rather a problem that is caused by people's actions.

"Prepare for a snowstorm, not Armageddon," Wegmans advises its shoppers.

Hospitals

With the clock ticking toward the end of the year, major hospitals in the region say they're ready for Y2K after exhaustive and expensive reviews of their operations.

This was not a job for the faint-hearted.

At Kaleida Health, a sprawling hospital network, the Y2K team inventoried 42,000 separate items at 67 sites that could have been affected by a computer glitch -- everything from patient-monitoring equipment to VCRs.

"We had to go over every inch of every building," said Rosemary Kuca, assistant vice president for clinical solutions.

The Catholic Health System spent about $9 million on a similar effort.

"One thing about hospitals you have to remember is, we're always testing in case of power failures and other emergencies," said Matthew Hamp, senior vice president of corporate services.

The consensus is that Y2K may cause some minor annoyances but no significant problems -- at least for now.

"Our concern is products from foreign countries," said Hamp. "Will we see shortages months down the line because manufacturers elsewhere weren't Y2K-compliant?"

As it turns out, hospital officials said, medical devices, from pacemakers to anesthesia machines, for the most part don't care what day it is. Some devices, such as an EKG, will provide an accurate measure but may show the wrong date on the paper strip that comes out of the machine.

That's not considered a big deal.

For hospitals, a good portion of their attention was focused on the computers that manage patient records.

On New Year's Eve, the hospitals will operate command centers devoted to monitoring their computerized devices and watching on television and Internet Web sites what's happening elsewhere around the world.

Kaleida, for instance, will be able to call hospitals in New Zealand and Australia with similar patient-information systems and get a heads-up on potential problems before Y2K moves into this time zone.

Banking

Is your money safe?

Local banks have spent millions to ensure that the answer is an emphatic "yes."

HSBC Bank USA began preparing for Y2K in 1996 and has spent more than $50 million on the effort. The review included every business process and computer program, from rubber stamps to bank statements.

"It was a major, major job," said Neal Beasley, a senior vice president. "It was soup to nuts, a task that involved every area of our bank."

Beasley said the bank has been ready since January and, like most banks, has been subject to intense scrutiny by state and federal regulators.

For that reason, he's advising people to keep their money in the bank.

"Remember, when your money is in the bank, it's federally insured," he said. "If you take it out and put it under a mattress, you're putting yourself at risk."

Utilities

Sometime after midnight Friday, somewhere in Western New York, power will go out. Water will stop flowing.

Service problems are common in January. What utility officials fear is that isolated disruptions could ignite fears of a widespread meltdown.

"If power goes out on New Year's Eve, don't assume it's Y2K-related," said Niagara Mohawk spokesman Steve Brady.

Niagara Mohawk averages 30 failures a night during the winter, but most affect only a few homes.

The utility finished testing its system for date-related computer bugs this summer. It will have about 1,000 workers on the job at transmission substations and waiting in service barns to handle emergencies.

"We're as ready as a power company can be," Brady said.

After spending $417 million, Bell Atlantic declared its 13-state system tested and ready in June.

"The key thing we're worried about is people's behavior," said spokesman Jim Smith.

Central offices like the one at 45 Franklin St. in Buffalo operate with backup batteries, ensuring that lines have power when the electricity is out. But if everyone picks up the phone at midnight to check for a dial tone, network congestion will result, and calls won't get through.

National Fuel officials said the utility's distribution system is relatively insulated from computer worries. Most pressure-reading meters and other transmission equipment aren't date-sensitive -- even if the equipment gets the date wrong, the gas keeps flowing.

Nevertheless, National Fuel tested equipment containing microchips, completing the job this summer. The utility will have about 150 emergency people working when the ball drops, up from 20 on a normal winter night.

Unless gravity is somehow affected by Y2K, the Erie County Water Authority's tanks will continue supplying its 125,000 customers. The only potential problem is a loss of power. The authority needs electricity to refill the tanks and run its stations.

"The odds are we will have a break, like we do any night in January," said Executive Director Robert Mendez. "But not from Y2K."

Transportation

The local agency that runs Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Metro Bus and Rail says it's ready for 2000.

"We believe our systems are up to speed," said Luiz F. Kahl, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

But the authority warns it could run into trouble if problems hit others.

Metro Rail, for example, depends on power from Niagara Mohawk to operate. If there's power after midnight, the trains will run. If there's no power, the trains will stop.

Not so at the airport.

"We believe we're ready to go," said William R. Vanecek, the NFTA's director of aviation.

Federal regulators are requiring all airports to test certain safety and security systems after midnight and before the first flight in or out on Jan. 1.

In Buffalo, there are no commercial passenger flights scheduled after 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve and no flights until about 5 a.m. the next day. That should make it easier for airport officials here to run their tests.

The job is also made easier by the low number of bookings Dec. 31.

"That makes sense," said C. Douglas Hartmayer, an NFTA spokesman. "Most people who want to celebrate the new year someplace else will already be at their destination."

In case of a power outage, the main terminal building and the airfield will rely on two diesel-fueled generators. Fuel for the generators is stored in a 5,000-gallon storage tank.

And if those backup generators fail -- a scenario called "unlikely" by officials -- the terminal will be evacuated.

Metro Buses also should operate without a problem, said Deborah Finn, the NFTA's director for surface transportation. All the bus garages are equipped with backup generators in the event of a power outage.

And as a precaution, the NFTA plans to stop all the Metro Rail trains that are in service just before midnight at one of the stations.

The agency wants to see what happens after midnight and eliminate the possibility of a tunnel evacuation.

If Metro Rail has to suspend service, patrons will be evacuated and the rail stations will be locked, Hartmayer said.

"If by chance power is lost while a train is underground and between stations, we have a diesel engine that we can send into the tunnel to safely pull out the train," he said.

Should rail service be suspended, Metro will dispatch 15 buses, picking up passengers downtown and transporting them to park-and-ride lots.

By all accounts, Western New York's major service providers are ready for Y2K.

And if something does go wrong, local command centers will know about it first and have on hand people who can react quickly and with authority.

News Staff Reporters Sharon Linstedt, Patrick Lakamp, Fred O. Williams and Henry L. Davis contributed to this story.

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