Millennium planning – a story of success

The necessity of planning for the Millennium weekend and the Millennium bug, known as the Y2K bug, has in my opinion been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Many, even in the emergency services, failed to appreciate how vital it was to plan for passing from one Millennium to the next.

I served on an inter-agency Millennium planning group in another police force area, and we faced two main tasks: to prevent the Y2K bug causing problems, and to ensure we could cope with the exceptional number of events being planned to celebrate the start of the new Millennium.

In 1998, a briefing from the Department of Trade and Industryalerted us topotential date discontinuity problems with IT systems or embedded chips. Not only as the year changed from 1999 to 2000, or ‘99’ to ‘00’ as many systems and chips stored the year identification, but also on 01.01.99, 09.09.99, 29.02.00, 01.03.00, 31.12.00 and 01.01.01.

It may not seem a great issue if databases that used just two digits for the year, thought that 1st January 2000 was actually 1st January 1900, and showed everyone aged 100+ as children. However, it would be a much bigger issue if, for example, records suddenly showed safety checks as being up to 100 years overdue, and it would be a very serious issue if the date change triggered any critical system shutdowns or failures.

Although catastrophic failures resulting from the Y2K bug were not expected, problems could not be ruled out. As systems in one organisation often depended on systems in another organisation, seemingly minor problems could cascade into bigger and more widespread problems. Whilst most large organisations and businesses were already taking preventative action, concerns remained about medium and small ones adopting a ‘head in the sand approach’.

During 1998 and 1999, the primary task was for the emergency services to check that the Y2K bug would not prevent them delivering their services. Those checks had to include any other public bodies and commercial providers that they were dependent on. It was also important to encourage all public and commercial sector organisations to carry out similar checks.

Most testing involved taking systems offline and advancing the date to just before the various critical dates to see what happened when the date changed. Unfortunately, some critical systems could not be taken offline and tested. It was also impossible to identify every component that used a two-digit year function. Although the date recording only used the last two numbers, e.g. ‘98’, systems were programmed to prefix all entries with ‘19’, so that the date would displaying as ‘1998’.

Manufacturers and suppliers could only offer limited help, as the fear of litigation prevented them giving 100% assurances. Even if positive assurances were given, they could not be considered fully reliable, as not all tests are fool proof. Everyone was therefore encouraged to plan to cope with any system failures.

There was confidence in supply chains for essentials, such as fuel, but there was concern that media hype could trigger panic buying. As the distribution network for most goods relied heavily on normal patterns of use and next day delivery, any unreasonable demand could see shortages. It was essential that the emergency services were prepared for that eventuality.

Our work also uncovered unrelated equipment, procedural and business continuity weaknesses. Some organisations found serious gaps in their business continuity planning, especially where there was a dependency on other organisations. So, equipment was upgraded, software updated, procedures enhanced, stocks of essential supplies increased, and business continuity procedures improved. This would improve the provision of emergency services, not only over the Millennium weekend, but for several years beyond. By the end of 1999 we were as satisfied as we could be that Y2K bug problems were unlikely and, if they occurred, any problems would have minimal impact and could be quickly dealt with.

The exceptionally large number of Millennium celebration events posed different issues. Events before and after the weekend were seen as an additional workload that normal event planning could cope with. However, with so many simultaneous events taking place over the Millennium weekend, including some very large-scale events, we needed enhanced planning and engagement with event organisers.

Intelligence revealed that some large illegal ‘rave’ events were being planned and, with so many legitimate events stretching resources, the police were unlikely to be able to stop the illegal ones. We also had to factor in the possibility that terrorists or protest groups might see the Millennium celebration events as easy and high-profile targets.

As well as the extra demand, many emergency service staff were likely to want to celebrate and attend events. So too would people in the voluntary sector and in organisations and suppliers that the emergency services rely on for support. That posed a risk that if they, and off duty emergency services personnel, were needed for a major incident we would struggle to get hold of people. Even if they could be reached, they may not be sober enough to drive or work on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

There was also a very real possibility that mobile telephone networks would be overloaded with text and voice calls, as people contacted family and friends to wish them well. Consequently, the only responsible option was to enhance arrangements over the Millennium weekend. As well as increasing on duty staffing levels, adequate numbers of off duty staff were asked to ensure they remained contactable and sober. A good will payment was often made for this sacrifice, and resilient communication options were provided.

The net result of all this work was that there were no serious problems as we transitioned from 1999 to 2000, or on the other critical dates. A bonus was that every emergency service was much better prepared and equipped for future disruptive challenges. So, far from being the flop that the media would have you believe, our planning and preparation for the Millennium was a real success story.

Words by Cf Systems