Bitten By The Millennium Bug

Scott Olmsted is on the run. His hideaway is a secret desert retreat known only to his family, CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports.

"We've fenced in the place, so it's not like anyone can walk in without making an effort," Olmsted said. "We have one firearm, and will probably be getting one or two more."

Olmsted's running from the one thing he knows will catch him - time. That's why he's preparing now for the "Millenium Bug," the worldwide computer glitch that could strike on Jan. 1, 2000.

Olmsted, his wife, Barbara, and many others are anticipating a computer plague resulting in widespread power outages, water shortages and general panic.

"Without power or water, there might be crime, no food," Olmsted said.

"If we see social unrest, we'll head for the hills," added wife Barbara.

"We bought a generator. We're buying a year's worth of dehydrated food," said Olmsted.

Buying land in a remote area may seem extreme, but Scott Olmsted is not a member of some fringe survivalist group; he's a well-paid computer programmer who says he's seen the potential for disaster first-hand.

"Every system that brings things to you, your food, your water, your power, your fuel, are run by computers," Olmsted said.

Everything from a common vending machine, to our VCRs, to the nation's power system has what are called embedded chips. They're the little brains that run the machine. Many of them have an internal clock. On New Year's Eve, 1999, those internal clocks will flip over to "00."

The big fear is that around the world, computers will think it's 1900, not 2000, causing them to lose their memories, shut down and plunge society into a modern dark age.

"I think that's overblown," said Eric Trapp of Southern California Edison.

It may be, but Trapp isn't taking any chances. He's continually testing hundreds of thousands of embedded chips in the electric company's power grid, all in an effort to keep the lights on when we hit year 2000, or Y2K.

But for many companies, the deadline is coming sooner than that. A handful of dates in 1999 could give us a glimpse of how bad Y2K problems might get. For some businesses, fiscal year 2000 begins as early as April 1, 1999; for others, July 1; and October 1 for the government. These dates could cause computer crashes if Y2K fixes aren't in place.

"Actually, that's going to wake up a lot of people because they're gonna start seeing what parts of their business start to crumble," said Ted Ellison.

Ellison is ready to step in when the crumbling begins. His company, Pick Systems, has created a way to combat the millennium bug by replacing dates with whole numbers that never end and never roll over. But Ellison's araid it's already too late for many businesse, especially small ones, that haven't taken precautions:

"Anyone who doesn't prepare for the El Ninos of the world is crazy," he said.

Southern California Edison claims it's ready. So far, all of the systems it has tested are a go. But the utility admit there's not enough time to test every single embedded chip and that's what worries Scott Olmsted.

"I'm not taking the assurances of the power company on this quite yet," Olmsted said.

Most experts think the Y2K problem can be managed. But Olmsted is still betting on a millennium meltdown and trying to stay one step ahead of the clock.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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