Midwest town heeds prophetic words on year 2000 problem

Midwest town heeds prophetic words on year 2000 problem

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

One fine day in 1987, Dick Brich, data processing supervisor of North Platte, Neb., was thumbing through a trade magazine. An article about the year 2000 date code problem caught his eye.

'This date code thing is going to be wild,' he said.

The next thing he knew, Brich had become the digital Noah of North Platte, measuring his ark in lines of Cobol instead of cubits. As early as 1991, when computer storage was still relatively expensive, Brich began insisting that all new city systems must have four digits in all date fields.

'Some folks in the town called me a moron,' Brich said. 'My biggest challenge was credibility. I showed them the code that was going to fail, and they just nodded their heads like, 'So what?' They didn't buy it.'

But Brich persevered. He set to work with several professors at Creighton University's College of Business Administration in Omaha to put together a detailed report on the year 2000 problem.

The report, North Platte, Nebraska: A Case Study of the Year 2000 Computer Problem, examined the consequences of system failures related to the date code change in vital city systems: electricity, police and fire.

'Year 2000 wasn't a problem that could be comprehended in the abstract,' said Mike Echols, former executive director for Creighton University's Institute for Information Technology and Management, and chairman of Double E Computer Systems of Omaha.

'We had to document it. And we had no ax to grind, plus we didn't charge anything. So that really opened a door,' Echols said.

Armed with the 28-page report, Brich got the town's attention at a city council meeting. A short-lived media frenzy ensued in the spring of 1997, with feature stories on the city's year 2000 situation appearing in USA Today and other publications.

Brich and his team at North Platte's Municipal Light and Water Administration spent the next two years updating 4 million lines of Cobol code. His mission completed, Brich left his job with the city last year to work for a digital and audio Web company called, fittingly enough, Prophet Systems Innovations. The Ogallala, Neb., company manufactures digital audio equipment for radio broadcasting.

Frank Freeman, North Platte's new data processing supervisor, carries the year 2000 torch now. Next month, Freeman will have finished migrating the Cobol code that Brich remediated to a Unidata application from Creative Computer Solutions Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.

North Platte's trusted NCR 3000 mainframe won't be celebrating on New Year's Eve. At the end of the year, Freeman and his staff will roll back the date on the unit to 1975, and the machine will die a quiet death.

By Oct. 1, the city's budget and billing systems will run on a new Sun Microsystems Enterprise 250 server with a 250-MHz UltraSparc II processor, 128M of RAM and a 9G hard drive. The city will keep the NCR mainframe as a data reservoir, Freeman said.

Like most of the state and local government officials GCN interviewed for this issue, North Platte officials have performed triage on the city's systems, deciding which ones are mission-critical.

North Platte Municipal Light and Water officials identified four mission-critical systems: chartered accounts, general ledger, purchasing and accounts payable. Payroll, utility billing, cash receipts and budget systems are what Freeman called required systems, meaning they must be ready to go on Freeman's deadline of Oct. 1.

Then there are the systems that can wait, which Freeman called supplementary modules. These include bank regulation, inventory and equipment maintenance.

Sink or swim

Noah himself must have had a Plan B, or a contingency plan, even if it was only 'Note to self: Learn to swim.' So, too, Freeman and his team have manual systems in place in case something goes wrong. 'We can support some of our systems from spreadsheets,' Freeman said.

North Platte is unusual in that the city government doubles as the town's electric utility. The Municipal Light and Water Administration, which is part of the city government, buys electricity from the Nebraska Public Power District in Doniphan, Neb.

NPPD is the city's link to the infamous power grid, the web of electric lines and substations that link electric circuits across the continent. NPPD transmits power to the city over lines ranging from 115,000 volts up to 345,000 volts. The district connects to the Western Area Power Administration in Golden, Colo., a marketing arm of the Energy Department.

What if the electric grid trips up, as doomsayers predict?

'We're more vulnerable to a good spring ice storm or a blizzard than the year 2000,' Freeman said. A few years ago, the city had no power at all for three weeks because of an ice storm, he said.

Some year 2000 commentators have predicted a breakdown in public safety. On Jan. 1, will citizens be able to dial 911 and be confident that an ambulance will show up?

Without a doubt, said Mary Ann Agler, clerk dispatch supervisor for North Platte's Police Department. Agler has spent most of this year testing systems. The department's 911 system runs on an IBM RS/6000 server that Agler upgraded to a year 2000-ready version of AIX, IBM's version of Unix.

One recurring theme expressed by many is that the date code challenge offered a chance to start anew. 'We saw the year 2000 as an opportunity to upgrade,' Agler said.

Agler began focusing on year 2000 issues early last year. The Police Department software, C-PLIMS from DM Data Corp. of Marlton, N.J., showed the wrong expiration date for an employee's certification. Agler upgraded the system to C-PLIMS Release 2.7.2, a 2000-ready version of the software.

Jeannie Beckman, administrative assistant to the fire chief, said her team has remediated and tested elevators, clocks, phone systems and defibrillators. The fire department upgraded its SweetSoft ambulance billing software from Sweet Computer Services Inc. of West Union, Iowa, from an MS-DOS version that ran on a 386 PC to SweetSoft 2000, a Windows 95 version of the same software that Beckman runs on a Pentium PC.

Deb Bertrand, director of emergency management for Lincoln County, of which North Platte is the county seat, learned about computers fast, thanks to the year 2000.

'Some people say that the computer part of the year 2000 shouldn't be a concern of the Emergency Management Department,' Bertrand said. 'But by the time we resolved the hair-splitting of that question, it would be too late.'

One of North Platte's claims is a canteen where World War II servicemen would stop off when traveling between the coasts. The canteen was staffed by town volunteers who would give the soldiers free sandwiches and coffee.

This same 'roll up your sleeves, get to work, and don't waste time whining' attitude has seen the city through two world wars and the Great Depression.

Now it remains to be seen if this same approach will help the city of 25,000 cross the digital bridge into the next century.

No city is an island'

The modern web of connectivity has magnified the interdependence of organizations.

In North Platte, for example, the electrical grid winds over transmission lines ranging from 115,000 volts to 345,000 volts through the Nebraska Public Power District's Energy Control Center in Doniphan, Neb., to the Western Area Power Administration in Golden, Colo.

A North Platte caseworker dials up over a 56-Kbps line to check Social Security benefit information that resides on a Social Security Administration mainframe in Baltimore via the Nebraska Health and Human Services' IBM mainframe in the state capital of Lincoln.

Financial transactions at the North Platte bank travel over a 14.4-Kbps line to the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo., through its FedLine system.

And police officers in North Platte check the FBI's National Crime Information Center 2000 in Clarksburg, W.Va., from their PCs over 9.6-Mbps lines, zigzagging first through Nebraska State Patrol headquarters in Lincoln, the NCIC hub for the state.


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