By Ron VandenBooom
About 70 percent of Montana Power Company's staff along the Hi-Line will be on the job Dec. 31 as the they welcome in what they hope will be an uneventful new year.
Pat Patterson, MPC's Manager of Operations in the Havre area, said Monday that between 20 to 22 employees from Chester to Glasgow will be manning major stations along the Hi-Line and an emergency operation center will be operating out of the Havre office.
"We felt we had an obligation to our customers and to the public to be prepared ..." Patterson said.
Patterson said his primary concern over the utility's ability to keep the juice flowing during the Dec. 31 deadline is one of "third party involvement in things." Meaning, that pranksters or terrorists might try to make something happen when nothing does happen.
"Obviously we've talked about third party involvement in things," he said. "We know that peoples' fears are going to be very high that night and we want to be as prepared as we can."
Precautions for the up-coming Y2K event, Patterson said, actually began about 1992 or 1993.
At that time concerns over date sensitive computer chips, the infamous "Y2K bug," was the industry's primary concern.
"There were some early indications that there could possibly be some problems," Patterson said. "So the Edison Electric Institute and some of the other industry wide institutes that we belong to started looking into the problem."
A number of institutes like Edison Electric test devices associated with the delivery of power and MPC became involved with the testing procedure. Then, several years ago, MPC started inventorying their system for "intelligent devices" that could possibly have problem computer chips.
MPC also went to manufactures to ask whether their equipment was Y2K compliant.
"And if they couldn't assure us that it was or give us good test data that it was, we actually would take the device out and test it ourselves," Patterson said.
Some equipment MPC felt was particularly important was tested anyway, he said.
"So it has been a pretty thorough investigation of our system. We feel we've gone through everything imaginable and if there was any question we have upgraded it. So we feel we're ready for Y2K," Patterson said.
An industry-wide drill was conducted on Sept. 9, 1999, when the date 9-9-99 was also expected to cause problems.
"And this one will be even greater than that," Patterson said. "There will be more stations manned and there will be more people involved."
Another reason MPC is comfortable with their preparations that much of their equipment is has a strong manual and mechanical element to it and is not dependent on computers.
"Fortunately the electrical power grid was built before computers," Patterson said. "So it's all basically manual."
Intelligent devices have been added to the system for data acquisition and sub-control, Patterson said, explaining their role as only minor in the actual distribution of power. Patterson stated that the generating plants are actually a lot more heavily manned on Dec. 31.
He went on to say that MPC has always been prepared for power outages and he reminds customers and the general public that weather or other natural disasters always threaten to interrupt service.
The public should be prepared by having some provisions like water, food, batteries, flashlights, and battery-operated radios, along with a ADA approved alternative heating device in the event of an outage.
Other heating sources like the family stove or a charcoal grill are dangerous and not intended for heating a home.
People with questions, or people with electric emergencies can call 1-888-4-MPC-ELE or 1-888-467-2353.