Remembering Y2K: The Catastrophe That Wasn’t

It was December 31, 1999 – five hours before the ringing in of a New Year and with it, a new millennium – and employees at Ottawa’s pre-amalgamated electric utilities were fielding calls from customers, patrolling the city, observing the electrical system, and monitoring computer programs.

The personnel working that evening at Ottawa Hydro would swing by the Albion cafeteria to grab a coffee and catch up on the festivities on TV while they awaited the impending stroke of midnight.

Will there be impact with the changing of the millennium? Are systems going to crash? Will the lights be on? These were the questions on everyone’s minds, both inside and outside the offices.

News at the time helped to fuel that uncertainty, featuring headlines like “Will the Lights Go Out on Y2K?” “GET READY WITH Y2K KIT,” “Y2K glitch takes new cars back to horseless-carriage era,” and even “Try canned salmon patties for Y2K.”

BJ Morin worked at Kanata Hydro at the time as the Assistant to the General Manager and Treasurer, and says she remembers the panic and stress that led up to New Year’s Eve. “The press seemed to be hung up on what a catastrophic event it could be,” she recalls.

Add to that industry groups at the time claiming the American power grid may be in for “serious disruptions,” according to this article.

And at Ottawa Hydro, the fear surrounding computer systems was indeed one of the main worries that employees at the utility spent countless hours working on over the previous year or more.

“There was an awful lot that went into it,” says Ken Lewis, a retiree and advisor who was Ottawa Hydro’s Acting Director of Human Resources at the time. He recalls payroll, and other applications on the mainframe computer system, being those potentially at risk with the rollover into the New Year.

The concern was that computer systems would crash when the calendar changed to 2000. “The problem, as some saw it, was that older computers still being used for critical functions might break down when the date switched from 99 to 00, since the numeric progression convention, programmed to store data using only the last two digits of any given year, wouldn’t recognize the logic of a century change,” according to an article in Wired magazine.

Lewis remembers working with colleagues in IT to go over reports and create a pre-emptive strategy. He credits the Director of Information Systems at the time, Peter Liu, for leading the coordinative undertaking on the Y2K responsibility for IT systems at Ottawa Hydro.

Retiree Cathy Guertin worked with Liu as the Supervisor of Programming and says everything from meters to photocopiers and equipment was tested and tracked, down to changing the date field.

“We made a copy of our system and wrote programs to increase the size of every date field from yrmody to yearmody. Next, after every date was increased on this new system, we tested every changed program to work with the new date field. All departments had to check all reports to make sure that no program errors had occurred,” she remembers.

Up until midnight, staff at many of the city’s utility companies were either working or on standby to react if needed. And when the clocks finally turned to 12:00 on 2000, they – and all the other systems – did so smoothly. But it was not without plenty of preparation.

“I think because of all the prep work done with staff and our software suppliers, the transition went off with little disruption,” notes Morin, a member of Hydro Ottawa’s retiree association. “Timers, clocks worked with little problem. Data wasn't lost and billing periods continued as scheduled. Cross-checks were done to ensure historical information was available.”

“Life went on… our rollovers were fine, it didn’t impact pay,” Lewis agrees. “We went on with the year 2000 and it was a significant year for us in the hydro world.”

After all, the amalgamation of all local utilities would occur the following November.