What happened?

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re a with-it kind of business owner: You’ve been paying attention to this Y2K thing. You’ve checked out all your computers, downloaded the fixes to Windows 98, and triple-checked all your software products. When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, you’ll be ready. Right?
Oh, you’re no fool, you’ve taken things a step further. You’ve identified everything you need to keep your business operational. You’ve checked your phone equipment and your fax machine, you have assurances from all your vendors that they, and all their vendors, are all Y2K-compliant, you’ve laid in extra paper, extra cartridges, you’ve identified everything you buy that’s manufactured elsewhere — especially abroad — and have a ready stash of supplies.
But what will happen if your town or community loses power for a few days, a few weeks or a month? What do you need to do to remain operational?
Do you have a source of heat and light? Do you need to think about getting a generator? Do you have hard copies of all the records you have on your computers, and do you have manual systems that will allow you do continue to do business without electricity? Is your business such that you won’t have a business without electricity?
Most of us grew up with electric lights and running water, and haven’t spent a great deal of time focusing on how what we use on a daily basis is provided. However, right now — vis- -vis the Y2K dilemma — we need to pay attention.
The most concerning scenario is the loss of power for an extended period of time. To understand why businesses are vulnerable, the complete interconnection of all the systems on which we depend for our daily living must also be understood.
We are part of a national power grid that extends into Canada with individual power-generating plants hooked together into one system that allows more efficient electricity use.
For the grid to operate, the generating plants must be synchronized. A failure in one point of the grid, in one power plant, can ripple through the entire grid, causing more power failures.
To complicate matters further, each power plant contains sub-systems within its systems. Since each little system has some chance of failing on New Year’s 2000 — though no one knows which ones — it becomes very likely that an entire power plant somewhere in the United States will break down. If not taken off the power grid immediately, that failure can trigger failures across the continent.
Ultimately, technicians will repair the grid, things will be operational again and our lives can get back to normal, more or less. How long that repair will take is completely unknown. It could be a matter of hours, days, weeks or months.
So, if we buy candles and wood stoves and wait for the power to come back on, is that enough? Not quite. We are not in the least self-sufficient. The water we use is pumped to us by electricity. The food we eat is trucked to us; trucks use fuel that is pumped electrically. Without electricity for even a couple of days, life as we know it will change profoundly.
What does this mean to us as business people? From my perspective, businesses need to work together within our communities to ensure that the basics of survival are concretely addressed. We need viable contingency plans. Without these plans, we leave ourselves open to the desperate actions of desperate people.
We need to ensure that our places of business are prepared and secure. If we shut down for a while, have we drained pipes to keep them from freezing and breaking? Are any of our products or services dependent on refrigeration, transportation or communication? Are the locks on our doors electronic?
Only after we address these basics can we think about the relevance of our businesses in the quiet of a world trying to plug itself back in. I challenge you to imagine life without electricity or phones for a few weeks. How can you best prepare now? We could lose power at any time from a bad storm. The preparation we do now will stand us in good stead.
You need to understand that while fixing the Y2K problem in any particular instance isn’t all that hard, there are too many instances and not enough time remaining to fix everything. Some things will fail — we’re just not sure which ones.
How our businesses fare will, in part, depend on how well we foresee our weaknesses and plan accordingly. Preparing for Y2K can be costly and time consuming. Businesses will do best by coming together as a community. The time to prepare is short and resources are few. Businesses can save steps by looking at what other business communities have already done.
Begin to prepare now. Your business or the business you work for doesn’t have a moment to lose.
Carol Baroudi is the best-selling author of “The Internet for Dummies,” and has just finished “Mastering COBOL,” a book about fixing Y2K problems in legacy software. She lectures worldwide on technology and its impact on society.