Local residents learn about Y2K

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 9/15/99.

The consensus at the public meeting Thursday night was that Y2K will be a nonevent.

Speakers representing Northern States Power (NSP), Lakedale Telephone, the city of Paynesville, Paynesville Area Health Care System (PAHCS), and two local financial institutions described their preparedness for Y2K. Several called it a nonevent.

The small crowd at the event, which was sponsored by the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce, asked only one question. Perhaps the most telling sign that the public agrees with the assessment that Y2K will be a nonevent was the low turnout of area citizens. The meeting lasted 30 minutes.

Darrin Lahr, the manager of community and local government relations at NSP's St. Cloud service center, started the presentation with an overview of the readiness of NSP to deliver power when clocks turn to Jan. 1, 2000.

"NSP has taken this very seriously," Lahr explained, noting that the company's budget for Y2K included 100 employees and $24 million. NSP has heard the refrain repeatedly: we're fine as long as we have power. "We understand this," Lahr said. "We understood it a long time ago." NSP started working on preparing for Y2K in 1996.

Lahr outlined the process whereby his company generates, transmits, and delivers electricity to its customers. He described the generators as primarily mechanical, with the only microprocessors in the control system. "In preparation, all our control systems have been replaced in the past three years," he said.

In case of the interruption of railroad service, Lahr said NSP had a 45-day supply of coal.

The transmission lines also are mainly mechanical, with some processors in the control system. During testing, they have had some inaccurate data in reports, but "nothing that would actually stop the flow of electricity from generating station to the consumers," said Lahr.

Distribution to users is completely mechanical, according to Lahr, and poses no problems.

NSP is most worried about communication, and Lahr said that if customers can't contact his company by phone, they should contact local law enforcement, who will relay the message.

NSP plans to have workers in the field on New Year's Eve when the clocks turn. "Not because we think it's needed," explained Lahr, "but because we think it's prudent."

He said the outlook was good and predicted that Y2K will be a nonevent. "Your chance of having an outage is no greater than having it tonight," he said.

Alan Roemeling of Lakedale Telephone said his company had prepared for Y2K for the last 18 months. They checked their vendors for the readiness of their telephone and Internet systems. Lakedale did update some programs and equipment. "We're quite confident, too,"  Roemeling said, "…that it's going to be a nonevent."

Roemeling offered to help customers check their equipment to see if it is Y2K compliant.

The city of Paynesville provides water and sanitary sewer service to city residents. "If there's electricity flowing, it will work," said Dennis Wilde, city administrator.

If the power is out, the city has generators in reserve. They have tested pumping water into the city's tower with this reserve system. "We know we can get water," Wilde said.

Another generator is portable, and it can be used to power the various lift stations around the city for the sanitary sewer.

Wilde said someone will be on staff at city hall on New Year's Eve. City hall will be in radio contact with the police and fire dispatchers in St. Cloud, so if communication goes down, that is an alternative method to contact emergency services.

The only bad news Wilde reported was that the computer system at city hall was noncompliant, so the city upgraded with a new system that is Y2K compliant. "I'm sure you're glad to hear your bills will be on time," he quipped.

On a serious note, he urged anyone with questions to stop and ask at city hall. Two local financial institutions were represented at the meeting: the Melrose Credit Union and Community First National Bank. The audience was informed that both have done extensive preparations under the guidance of auditors and regulators. v John Heinen of the Melrose Credit Union said they had gone through five steps: awareness of the problem, assessment, renovation, testing, and implementation. Assessment involved determining critical systems, contacting vendors, and even studying the potential impact of Y2K on some of their large customers.

They tested every system, and found that some manufacturers claims of Y2K complaince weren't true. They have implemented changes from the testing, developed contingency planning, and are publicizing their readiness.

One area of joint concern to the credit union and Community First was liquidity. One fear of the lending institutions is that a panicked public will make a run on cash, demanding levels typically not stored in town. The Paynesville Office of the Melrose Credit Union, Community First National Bank, and Farmers and Merchants State Bank have had discussions on cooperating and possibly sharing funds if needed.

Kevin Paintner, president of Community First in Paynesville, said their parent company has its headquarters in Fargo, N.D., and that there will literally be a plane on the runway there ready to supply extra cash to a bank if necessary.

"At this point, we've rolled all our computers and tested them, just like it was Jan. 1, 2000," Paintner said. "We need our customers to understand their money is safe. It's insured."

Later, he added that scams–on the telephone, for instance, with callers urging customers to move their money to a Y2K-safe account–were more dangerous to customers than Y2K itself. People should beware of possible theft if they plan to withdraw large sums of cash. Money in a bank or credit union is insured, Paintner stressed. "That's probably the safest place for it," he said.

Bev Mueller, patient care administrator for PAHCS, said they have checked on the compliance of all their equipment. The hospital system has emergency generators that are checked regularly. They have a three-day supply of fuel on hand and would only need to acquire more in case of an emergency, Mueller said.

A sizable staff will be at work during New Year celebrations this year, according to Mueller. Each department will be staffed, and each department head will be at work as well to handle any glitches. For communications, Mueller said the hospital system will have cellular phones for back up. If someone needs help and can't phone, they should either contact law enforcement or make their way directly to the emergency room at the hospital.

Wilde said he was concerned about the public's overreaction. For instance, storing excessive amounts of gasoline in garages, which in the case of a fire would make the situation far more volatile. He predicted that Y2K wouldn't be as bad as last Wednesday night, when a broken power line caused a two-hour power outage to thousands of NSP customers in the Paynesville area.

"We don't know when a mechanical system is going to fail," agreed Lahr of NSP. "I think the big lesson of Y2K is: Be prepared."

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