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Y2K IN AUSTRALIA

"The Y2K ‘millennium bug’ is a disaster with a probability of one."
Mr Alan Hodges, Director General of Emergency Management Australia

Before we begin it is important to distinguish between the computer related Millennium Bug and other events that may or may not happen in the coming century.

The Millennium Bug is a problem for which we have known the time and date it will impact for several years and, because of the advance notice, considerable resources worldwide have been applied to mitigating its effects.

The same cannot be said for other disasters and earthchanges whose impact will be more devastating because we cannot foresee where or when they may occur.

Even given all the work related to the Millennium Bug to date there is still considerable uncertainty about what failures will occur, where they will occur and what their impacts will be.

The following is one person’s views on preparing to meet the Millennium Bug.

Based on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being no impact and 10 being the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) the views given assumes the Millennium Bug’s impact on Australia will be about 4. However, the common consensus is that the impact worldwide will rank about 7.

What is the Millennium Bug?

By now, everyone knows the Millennium Bug relates to date sensitive software in computer systems and in small microchips placed in many common appliances (embedded chips).

The Millennium Bug has its origins in a time when computer memory was scarce and cost a considerable amount. Programmers therefore took shortcuts whenever possible to save space. Instead of using a four-digit code for year dates, a two-digit entry was used. This practice persisted, long after the need for saving space was eliminated. The two-digit code also was used in embedded chips, that exist in devices that control processes in many common items at work and at home, which are part of our everyday lives.

So, what will happen? As the date changes from 31/12/99 to 01/01/00 many computerised systems will think they have travelled back in time to the year 1900. If the program includes time-sensitive calculations or comparisons, results are unpredictable. No one knows exactly what problems may occur, how widespread they may be, or how long they will last.

The potential consequences vary from being just annoying (for example, you may need to reset the date on your camcorder) to potentially life-threatening (air traffic control systems or electronic medical equipment may not function properly).

Although government and business have spent billions trying to rectify the problems there are trillions of lines of computer code that must be fixed and millions of embedded chips. It is naive to think that all of the problems will be found and corrected.

To exacerbate the problem further many systems are interconnected. A large business has many different systems and it is not known how a failure in one will effect the others and indeed how the failure of one business will affect others that rely on it for products or services.

It should be noted that the Millennium Bug is not limited to January 1, 2000. It has already caused problems throughout the world and many experts predict that the problem is more likely to be a persistent one over a few years rather than a single "crash".

In Australia our existing National Emergency Management Arrangements are considered suitable to respond to any emergencies that arise as a result of, or during, the critical New Year period, but they could well be stretched to the limit if there are multiple system failures.

So, what do I need to know and do to survive the Millennium Bug?

Around the Home

The most current advice is that most home appliances will not be seriously affected with the exception of the home computer. However, you should check everything that displays the date. In most cases you can do this by setting the appliances date to 11:59 PM 31/12/99 and, after waiting five minutes, testing the appliance to ensure it operates properly.

After computers, appliances such as early model video recorders are likely to have minor problems. Video recorders will continue to record and play manually but some models made in the 1980’s may lose their ability to timer-record for the future.

One quick fix for appliances that fail the test is to set the internal clock to 1972. 1972 also started on a Saturday and was a leap year.

There has been considerable concern over the embedded chips found in most modern cars. However, it seems that, at least according to the manufacturers, your car will start come January. At most, the trip computer in some early models will no longer function correctly and the automated service reminder found in some makes may no longer work (though most rely on ignition starts).

Travel

Don’t plan to be anywhere you wouldn’t want to spend a few days come new years eve.

Fears of Y2K problems will see metropolitan train services across most of the nation stop before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Trains will begin to run again at about 12:05 and stop again briefly an hour later to guard against the effect of daylight savings.

Qantas and Air New Zealand will continue flying but will cut back on services over the critical period. Ansett will stop flying at 11 PM and it is not known when services will recommence.

Particularly avoid international travel over New Years Eve. Whilst the Civil Aviation Safety Authority here in Australia assures us they will be 2000 compliant and that they will ground any airlines that are not, the same cannot be said for any overseas airport or airlines.

Medical Emergencies

The last thing you want happen to come the new year is to find yourself in hospital hooked up to the machine that goes ‘ping’ and find it does not.

Although Government health departments are confident that their systems will be ready, the best advice is to stay out of hospitals. However, if you need to spend time in hospital over the New Year period you should check to ensure that the hospital has a contingency plan. Things that could go wrong, such as power blackouts or water shortages, should be included in the plan and the hospital should be able to assure you that you’ll be in no more danger than at any other significant holiday period. They should also be able to assure you that there’ll be no significant equipment failures caused by the change of date from 1999 to 2000.

Utilities (Water, Gas & Electricity)

According to the electricity industry, the Millennium Bug would not interfere with power supply, largely because Australian infrastructure is not state of the art. All State-based authorities have provided assurances that equipment used to supply power has 99.98 percent reliability for next year but will not provide any guarantees.

Also consider that electricity suppliers must estimate the usage of electricity and generate sufficient power to meet demand. The failure of several major business users of electricity may mean that far more power is supplied that can be used. Once generated the electricity has to be used. If not, excessive power in the grid can cause surges and brownouts. Apart from casing serious problems to many household appliances, these also have the potential to bring down the power grid.

You should expect there to be periods of power outages and possible disruptions to the water supply particularly over January. Given the potential for contamination of the water supply from organisms such as cryptosporidia these disruptions should not be taken lightly.

Your Finances

Many people are advising that you withdraw your money from the bank before New Years Eve. Many of us will already have withdrawn a little more money than normal for use over the holiday period. While it is prudent to have a little more cash on hand than you normally would, withdrawing all of your money would only make you a target for opportunistic thieves and so should be avoided.

Most Banks, ATM’s etc. in Australia appear to be ready for Y2K and the Reserve Bank will have a central command centre at its Sydney headquarters to handle computer problems caused by the year 2000 changeover. It has also printed or saved from destruction an estimated $10 billion in notes to meet the expected rush for cash at the close of the year.

Some less scrupulous people are advocating buying gold and other precious metals as a hedge against the Millennium Bug. Think carefully before doing so, most countries still have some form of a gold reserve and should a country, say Russia, experience serious economic problems from the effects of the Millennium Bug one of the ways they will raise much needed cash is to sell their gold reserves, thus bringing the price down significantly.

The most important thing everyone should be doing is to keep all bills and statements in the latter part of 1999 together in a file or folder as a reference. You must be able to substantiate how much you own and how much you owe. It would also be a good idea to collate your insurance policies.

As usual, insurance companies are seeking ways of minimising their exposure to Millennium Bug claims. Some insurance companies are already making it clear that they won’t cover year 2000 related failures. So if your home computer fails because it has a problem (direct or indirect) with the year 2000, you can’t expect your home contents insurance to cover it. However, insurance may cover events that are the product of year 2000 failures. So, in the event that your power fails, you may be able to claim for the ruined food in your freezer. The only way to be certain of your cover is to read your policy carefully and get assurances from your insurance company in writing.

If you must travel around this time, you should establish what your travel insurance will and won’t cover with regard to year 2000 failures.

Mind the Home Front

For most of us we will already have stocked the pantry and have withdrawn some cash for the holidays. However, it is also be prudent to ensure that you have an alternative source of light, heat and means of cooking, just in case there is a longer than normal delay in repairing any services that may have a problem.

Most emergency services lists will only recommend a few days to a weeks worth of food and water to guard against a disaster. This is not because they expect any crisis to last this long but this is how long they anticipate their relief operations to reach you. It would be better to have supplies on hand to last at least four weeks so as not to be reliant at all on emergency relief.

The following is a basic list of things that are handy to have for any emergency, not just to meet the Millennium Bug:

  • A supply of fresh water. A minimum of four weeks worth per person with about 4.5 litres per person per day. A good water filter would also be an advantage.
  • A minimum of four weeks back-up supply of tinned or non-perishable food and other grocery items.
  • A well-stocked first aid kit and some non-prescription drugs like pain relievers, laxatives, antacids and anti-diarrhoea medication.
  • Add to this one to two months supply of any prescription medication that you might need.
  • A camp stove and a supply of bottled gas (a barbecue is a good alternative).
  • Matches.
  • A powerful torch and a supply of fresh batteries.
  • Candles or lantern (with spare fuel).
  • A full tank of petrol for your car or bike.
  • Radio and batteries.
  • One bag of lime and a spade.

At Work

Most of us who work for others will most likely come across the effects of the Millennium Bug on their return to work on 4 January 2000.

You should check with your employer about their contingency plan and check to ensure that your health and safety is being considered.

Your Business

Small business is perhaps the single biggest area of concern in the coming crisis. An ABS survey of 6,500 firms released in December 1998 indicated that although 92 percent of firms were aware of the problem only 57 percent were taking or intending to act. Small businesses by themselves were even worse with about 75 percent not having done anything and 50 percent not intending to.

One State government estimated that up to 10 percent of small and medium enterprises may fail. This is mainly because of the dependence of these businesses on cash flow from business operations for survival. Millennium Bug events or failures either internal or externally in the supply chain will impact by disrupting cash flow causing liquidity pressure and increasing the likelihood of business failure.

Remember it is not only your business you have to worry about but those that supply you with essential goods and services as well.

It is therefore essential that every business have a contingency plan in place well before the New Year. The Australian Society of CPA’s can offer assistance to businesses in this area.

The Economy

Although Australia itself is likely to be one of the least affected countries by the Millennium Bug the predictions of global recession are common and cannot be dismissed. The Australian economy is heavily dependent on exports and many of our trading partners have been slow to address the Millennium Bug.

According to the experts some of the worst affected countries will include Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Also affected but perhaps not quite so badly are Japan, Malaysia and North Korea.

Most of these are significant trading partners for Australia.

In these countries the affect of the Millennium Bug could be catastrophic. The lack of preparedness and failure to recognise the disastrous potential is highlighted by the attitude of the Indonesian national electricity board. When Indonesia's national electricity board was recently asked by an Indonesian newspaper about its Y2K preparedness, they replied that they can observe what happens at midnight 1999 in Western Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, and still have six hours to make plans.

Given the current tension with Indonesia over East Timor and their own internal problems in Ambon. How long will it take for someone in the Indonesian military to see an escalation of the conflict as a way to boost the countries productivity and deflect attention from problems at home? Alternatively, will China see Y2K as an ideal time to reclaim Taiwan?

This is in our own backyard, so to speak, and does not consider what will happen in Eastern Europe in places such as Kosovo and Chechnya.

There is a very high probability that Australia’s economy will go into recession.

The Sharemarket

You should expect the sharemarket to drop significantly in the first quarter of 2000, If not through business failures then through panic selling. Perhaps not as far as it did in 1988 but far enough that if you cannot afford to lose the money you have tied up in shares you should consider transferring the money to fixed interest securities.

The sharemarket is already showing increased signs of volatility with computer companies in particular showing marked drops in the share prices.

On a positive note, it will be a good time to buy in about March 2000 if you choose your stock carefully. Depending on how far the market falls you could see gains similar to what happened in the early 1990’s when investors who bought just after the crash saw the equivalent of 10 years of growth in shareprices in only three.

But, is the Millennium Bug the only thing to consider?

As we have said the Millennium Bug is a disaster whose date and time of occurrence has been well known for some time. In addition to the Millennium Bug, the new century brings with it a huge degree of uncertainty about our future on this planet, some of the other events you should be thinking about:

  • The increased incidence of natural disasters worldwide, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions;
  • Environmental disasters, including famine, disease and degradation of our natural resources;
  • International tensions that have escalated into open conflict;
  • Prophetic events, including those foretold in the Bible, by the Maya, Nostradamus, Edgar Casey and the Hopi Indians; and
  • Terrorism, especially the threat of biological warfare.

Would you be prepared?

Recent events such as the Sydney hail storm, the Auckland power failure and the Victorian gas explosion provide good reasons to have plans in place to meet possible contingencies.

The Millennium Bug may just be a timely warning about the consequences of our actions. It is time to consider carefully our lifestyles and take steps to reduce the potential for adverse affects on future generations.

Survivalists recognise that there are many potential disasters in the short, medium and longer term. These could include such things as natural disasters that impact locally through to worldwide disasters such as the exhaustion of fossil fuels or the impact of salinity on the food producing areas of the world. What distinguishes survivalists is that they take the time to consider what disasters could impact upon them and their families and actively take steps to minimise them.

Final thoughts on the Millennium Bug

While it's good to "Be Prepared!" there isn't a reason to panic which always tends to make things worse anyway. (Any action based on fear tends to create more problems than it solves.) If people start panic buying in December we will certainly have problems and shortages. During the gas crisis in Victoria panic buying saw the supplies of milk run out.

Consider what happened at the end of the last millennium. Faced with similar uncertainty, many Europeans surrendered their possessions to churches, in anticipation of the End. Unfortunately, some historians add, when life went on, the churches did not return the goods.

Take the time to fully inform yourself about the Millennium Bug and make your own judgement about the level of preparedness that you feel is needed. Then take steps now to ensure that you will be adequately prepared.

The motto of this story? - "Plan for the worst, pray for the best."

Finally, who was the bright spark that shortened the year 2000 to Y2K isn’t that the sort of thinking that got us into this problem in the first place?


2008 TEN YEARS OF AUSSURVIVALIST

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Last Modified: April 15, 2008
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