Tick tock

A basic state of alert

You better watch out, you better not pout: Y2K is coming to town. So, who’s ready? Are you?

Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino says he’s usually in bed by 10 p.m., most nights — but, this year, he’ll join scads of emergency/city/county/information-system/utility crews who’ll be standing by at midnight on Dec. 31. They’ll greet the new millennium from their emergency-operations centers/work trucks/law-enforcement vehicles/office cubicles/fire stations/sewage-treatment plants/etc., watching Jan. 1 roll around the globe (starting at 7 a.m. on Dec. 31, our time, when the dawn breaks, out in the South Pacific). As one of Black Mountain’s top firefighters reported recently, “All leave is canceled.”

Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina observes, “This is happening everywhere. Everyone I’ve talked to, across the country, is planning to spend an exciting New Year’s Eve in their emergency centers.”

Despite the obvious heightened state of alert, however, Annarino joins many officials in assuring us that the changeover will most likely be downright dull. “I feel pretty comfortable that we’ve prepared everything we can [for Y2K]. But you can expect, all across the world, people out celebrating because it’s something unusual. You’re bringing in a new century,” Annarino reflects, adding, “At 12:01 [on the morning of Jan. 1], if your power goes out, you can probably blame a drunk driver.”

But, just in case, Asheville will have double the usual number of law-enforcement officers on the streets on New Year’s Eve, both downtown (for the First Night celebration) and all across the city. “We need a highly visible presence,” says Annarino.

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department has similar plans, according to Capt. Lee Farnsworth. “By 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, we’ll have triple the normal number of vehicles [and officers] out,” he told local emergency personnel and officials gathered for a countywide briefing in the Emergency Management conference room on Dec. 10. The Sheriff’s Department has prepared an extensive contingency plan — starting with the basics, such as making sure all vehicles are gassed up, radios are working, and backup communications systems are in place, reported Farnsworth. “And we’ll go to 12-hour shifts [for officers] as long as we have to,” he added.

Few, if any, deputies will get the night off: If they’re not on duty, they’ll be on call; if they’re not on call, they’ll be on standby (easily reachable by phone, and able to make it to work within the hour). Local law enforcement has also coordinated its plans with the county’s Emergency Management Services — and even checked utility-company preparations. Farnsworth commented that he had run into a longtime Duke Power engineer recently and asked if the company was ready for Y2K. “He said, ‘Son, let me tell you something: If your meter ain’t turning [on Jan. 1], we ain’t making money.'”

Powered up

Carolina Power and Light’s Nancy Thompson had to laugh when she heard that one. Utility companies are strictly regulated in the United States, she added, and they had to meet a federal deadline for Y2K preparedness — back in June. “All 16 of our [power] plants have been tested and are Y2K-ready,” said Thompson. Since 1994 — when CP&L started working on millennium preparations — the company has spent $20 million identifying potential problems, checking systems, replacing outdated equipment and software, and more, reported Thompson. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, a national not-for-profit consortium of private and public power utilities, 99 percent of the nation’s electric-service providers are ready for Y2K, noted Thompson. She emphasized: “We don’t anticipate service interruptions due to Y2K. … We are hoping New Year’s Eve will be a non-event.”

To be on the safe side, though, CP&L will have double crews on hand and on call, both Friday night and through the weekend, she noted.

So will the Public Service Company of North Carolina, which provides natural-gas service in the Asheville area. “Our company has been working on Y2K since 1993. Right now, like any other utility, we’ve gone through Y2K tests, and our systems have tested out fine,” PSNC’s Director of External Relations Don Hallingse assured Mountain Xpress. The company’s supplier — Transcontinental Pipeline, which delivers natural gas from Louisiana all the way up the east coast to Maine — has also reported Y2K readiness, he continued. “We’re ready. We’re going to have crews working and crews on standby the night of Dec. 31 — and the whole weekend.” And PSNC has contingency plans in place, should anything serious happen. “We’ll make preparations like we would for a major winter storm: gas up our vehicles, check our radios, hook up backup generators,” said Hallingse.

What about his own personal preparations? “[My family’s] looking at a three-day supply of water and canned goods you don’t have to cook, and enough cash to get us through the weekend,” Hallingse replied.

Ready on the home front

That’s the cautious approach the American Red Cross recommends, says the agency’s local director of emergency services, Debra Collington. “We encourage people to … be self-sufficient, at least for the first 72 hours,” she said, after the conclusion of the county briefing. At-home preparations should include stocking up on any special emergency supplies you might need — such as insulin, oxygen or prescription medicines — and setting up an alternate source of heat (as well as making sure you have a well-ventilated area in which to use it), Collington explained. “Don’t take all your money out of the bank,” she suggested: “Keep just enough for the weekend. But, otherwise, treat [this event] as if you were preparing for a big winter storm.”

And, if you can, donate blood — shortages are all too common around the holiday, said Collington.

Preparing for the worst

What if something big and nasty does happen? Buncombe County’s John Richard told emergency personnel at the briefing: “We have prepared for things to go well. But, if anything does happen, we’re ready for it.” As Buncombe’s Information Technology director, he has worked with Emergency Management Director Jerry Vehaun to prepare the county’s Y2K Response Management Plan. Like the contingency plans Asheville and other local municipalities have prepared, the county’s lists employees and phone numbers where they can be reached. It also outlines response procedures for addressing every conceivable emergency need — like making sure the Detention Center has a 14-day supply of food for inmates, and backup power (even the facility’s doors are automated, noted Buncombe County Manager Wanda Green). “They can operate manually, if they have to,” said Richard.

He also laid out this worst-case scenario: A host of computer and system failures corrupts data and causes glitches all over; at the same time, a heavy snowstorm knocks out the power. And emergency personnel receive a very high volume of requests for aid — at the same time that many emergency personnel have situations at home that demand their attention. “The key to any emergency plan is to have a solid communications plan,” Richard declared. In preparation for such a crisis, the county and local municipalities have checked telephones for Y2K compliance, powered up cell phones as backups, readied old-fashioned two-way radios — and even dusted off old rotary phones.

So much for preparations. But such imagined catastrophes are not local officials’ biggest worry about Y2K’s long-awaited arrival.

“We’re concerned … that an event not related to Y2K gets escalated,” Asheville Finance Director Bill Schaefer told emergency personnel at the briefing.

As City Manager Jim Westbrook remarked in late November, “Y2K problems aside, we’re equally concerned about the drunk driver who plows into a utility pole and knocks out a transformer — and people panic and say, ‘It’s Y2K!'”

No less than half a dozen local officials used this example during Mountain Xpress’ Y2K research, incidentally.

“We expect a larger number of false alarms than usual,” said Rukavina, picking up on the theme. For that reason alone, there’ll be more than the usual number of firefighters and paramedics on duty through New Year’s weekend, he explained. But there’s also another element to Y2K, Rukavina suggested: “The emergency responders can also be victims.”

If the weather’s bad, the taxpayers expect firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics, doctors, water-maintenance workers and the like to be on the job, he explained. “But we learned — in Hurricane Floyd and other disasters — [that] there’s only so long a rescue worker can be on the job without sleep, without rest, without taking care of business at home,” continued Rukavina. During the mini-tornado that hit Asheville recently, he recounted, one city firefighter had to be relieved of duty so he could take care of the seven trees down at his home. With that in mind, additional staff will be on standby, waiting to relieve on-duty personnel, if need be.

There’s another sobering aspect of Y2K, reflected Rukavina: If there are widespread computer glitches, “Our neighboring cities may not be able to help us.”

Check, and double-check

Buncombe County Manager Green reported that she’ll be downtown in her office for Y2K, and all county department heads (if not already at the emergency operations center) must report to work on Saturday, Jan. 1, to check things out.

“We started thinking about Y2K several years ago, looking at systems and software that needed to be replaced, like the Criminal Justice Information System,” she reported from her Oak Plaza office. “There isn’t anything in any of our buildings that hasn’t been checked — from elevators to fire alarms to the automated doors at the Detention Center.”

“I hope we’re bored silly at Y2K,” said Green. “But we’ve got backup systems for everything,” she added, mentioning power generators, for one. She also observed, “Even if all the PCs are down, there’s a lot of work you can do without a computer.”

Buncombe County Tax Director Jerome Jones agreed. After all, the first week of January is when most folks pay their property taxes, he mentioned at the Dec. 10 briefing. “You can be sure, if you want to pay your taxes, we’ll be there,” he quipped.

Water flows downhill

Add sewage and water to the county’s list of other sure things. “When you flush it, it’s gone. Maybe no one wants to think about that,” said Metropolitan Sewerage District Director Bill Mull, noting with a chuckle that most folks haven’t been too worried about their toilets being ready for Y2K. But if anyone’s paying attention: “To the best of our knowledge, we’re Y2K-compliant. We have an in-house computer guru, and he’s checked out all our software and hardware. He’s satisfied that everything will run.”

The sewage-treatment plant is largely automated, and last month, Mull reported, MSD conducted a test, flipping all the switches and computers to read Jan. 1, 2000. “The only pileup was e-mail. Our system thought [the latest] e-mail was a year old, and dumped it into the archives. No one could get their e-mail for days,” Mull recalled, laughing.

For more crucial systems, though, the plant has backup generators. If CP&L has a power outage, the plant can run on methane gas drawn from the old landfill. Failing that, MSD has a diesel-powered generator, with enough fuel to treat sewage for four days, Mull explained. And, like other utilities and public-safety departments, they’ll have extra staff on hand, as well as standby crews on call — “and not at a party somewhere, smashed,” he concluded, with a touch of down-home humor. Mull plans to be at home, with his telephone handy, his cell phone fully charged and his two-way radio hooked up. “We’ve got enough groceries to get through,” Mull said about his home preparations, adding, “Heck, we’ve always got enough food for a weekend.”

Of course, toilets aren’t much good without water: Luckily for Buncombe and north Henderson County residents served by the Regional Water Authority, most of our water lines work on the basic principle of gravity, flowing down from the mountain-top reservoir at North Fork, Asheville Water Resources Director Tom Frederick remarked on Dec. 14. To treat the water, though, the North Fork plant needs electricity — and has a backup power supply. And, should there be other problems, there’ll be double the usual number of water-maintenance crews on hand for Dec. 31 — and more staff on standby, he said.

Check, and double check

Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs has his crews ready, too. All city vehicles are gassed up; a mechanic will be on duty all night on New Year’s Eve, to keep them running; and the city’s fuel station (already checked for Y2K compliance) will be up and running that weekend. Supplies of sand and salt have been topped off, just in case there’s a winter storm; and the city has stocked up on repair parts, like spark plugs — as well as two weeks’ worth of food for his crews.

“During the Blizzard of ’93, we had a real crisis: We were snowed in, no stores were open, and we ran out of food for our employees,” Combs recalled.

With all that taken care of, city Traffic Division and Engineering staff have turned their attention to checking things like street signals: They’re Y2K-compliant, but if there’s a power outage, a fail-safe system sets them all to flashing.

“We’re basically prepared for the worst,” reported Combs, saying his family knows not to expect him home early on New Year’s Eve. “We’ll have extra staff on duty that night, and … more on standby, so we can go into a high state of awareness very quickly,” added the former Army man. At home, Combs says he’s stocked up on extra batteries and food, and has three pickup loads of firewood cut and ready. He’s encouraged his staff to do the same, so they can be on the job, if need be.

City Engineer Cathy Ball will be on duty New Year’s Eve, too — but mostly answering the phones. Her expertise doesn’t come into play until after a disaster, when she and her staff would normally assess any damages. “Our staff are putting all our equipment in one place — like cell phones — in case other emergency crews need them,” said Ball. Then she laughed, remarking, “When they first did the emergency plan, they left us out.”

Not so for the Building Safety folks, however: Director Terry Summey‘s staff had to check all the city’s backup generators, making sure they were Y2K-compliant and hooked up properly. He cautions residents who get their own generators to have them checked out — and get an electrician and city inspector to make sure they’re hooked up right. “We could have power outages because someone hooked up a generator incorrectly, but everyone might think it’s caused by Y2K,” said Summey.

In case things truly get bad, four of Asheville’s community centers will open up as shelters: Montford, West Asheville, Oakley, East Asheville and Montford (they all have backup generators for emergency power, and stocks of food), said Robin Nix, the city’s public information coordinator. And the Red Cross will see to the opening of other shelters in local schools and other facilities, if needed, Collington reported.

But, having made your own preparations, these officials say the best thing for everyone to do is stay calm. “This is the one year people will be thinking about electricity,” noted Thompson of CP&L. “Usually, we cut off the lights at midnight in downtown Asheville, for the First Night fireworks. We decided that would not be appropriate, this year.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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