Extend contingency plans beyond bits and bytes

Two events got me thinking about Y2K again: the snow storm that slammed Toronto recently, and a Vanity Fair article.

I was sitting in one of those guy-chairs they put in women’s clothing stores, waiting as my wife perused the latest offerings. With nothing to do, I picked up Vanity Fair (the other options were Flare and Chatelaine, so I made the obvious choice). Flipping through the January issue, my eye was caught by a cool Y2K graphic, and, wondering how a mainstream magazine would present this complicated issue, I read the article. (Unfortunately, it’s not on Vanity Fair’s bare-bones Web site.)

The article – entitled The Y2K Nightmare – has some good information but its tone was overly alarmist. If non-techie family members and friends have started asking you if the world is going to end soon, articles like this are the cause.

For example, the piece suggests the following devices and services may crash and burn in the New Year: ATMs, credit card processing, VCRs, electrical power, phones, bank vaults, prison gates, sewer valves, 911, fire truck ladders (??), elevators, hospital ventilators and X-ray machines, streetlights, trains, airplanes, newspapers, movies, pension cheques, many small businesses, industry in general, and, finally, banks.

Clearly, this is overkill. Y2K will injure and even kill-off some unprepared companies, but few North Americans will face severe personal danger. Instead, expect disruptions and inconveniences of the type that occur during bad storms.

Last summer, Department of Defence officials pointed to the Quebec and Ontario ice storms as possible Y2K templates, and suggested people prepare by stocking some extra cash and cans of food. The recent snow bashing Toronto took is another good example of what to expect.

The city’s average annual snowfall is 124 cm; as of Jan. 1, the downtown core was buried under 113 cm of snow, with more to come. That slowed the city considerably, and effectively shut it down for two days. CFB Petawawa sent 446 soldiers to help with snow removal, and the snow affected about 7.1 million people.

The lesson from this is when you plan for the new century, plan for more than computer problems. When the New year hits, you and your staff may not be able to get to work, transit or phones may fail, emergency services may be slow to respond, and working at home will become very attractive. But these will be temporary conditions, and if Toronto can survive then so can all other Canadians.

The kicker from Toronto’s winter story is that many businesses had inadequately prepared for this type of disruption, so spending some time over the next 11 months thinking about wide-ranging contingency plans is a good idea.