This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 20, 1999
Maj. Rod Babiuk picked up his brass abacus for a buck at a garage sale, while many of his colleagues at CFB Kingston hunted down wooden versions of the beaded counting machines. No, the army has not developed a sudden interest in ancient math. These soldiers are members of Operation Abacus - a massive military initiative that involves 1,200 Canadian Forces personnel. On Dec. 31, the Abacus team will be firmly entrenched in an Ottawa command-and-control post and at five regional centres across the country. As the clock nears midnight, they will be watching computer screens intently to see if the dam holds - and all the intensive efforts to halt the Y2K computer bug have worked.
Estimates of the amount spent in Canada so that computers will calculate the year after 1999 as 2000 range from $20 billion to $50 billion. All essential systems are said to be fixed, but the Ottawa command centre will be at the ready - with the troops on standby - just in case.
Across the country, this will be the most-worked New Year's Eve and Day on record. Thousands of extra police, hydro workers, bankers, telephone operators, nurses and firefighters will be on duty - with many more on call - prepared in the event that Y2K malfunctions amount to more than a few computer hiccups. Maclean's spoke to Canadians in key sectors who will not have time to sip champagne on the most-watched, most-anticipated New Year's in history.
MARGARET DE GRACE
Disaster response planning co-ordinator, Vancouver Hospital: Talk about triple-whammy potential. While de Grace and the other five members of the hospital's emergency response group watch for Y2K glitches, they must also keep a wary eye on the streets. A nearby retro-New Year's concert will disgorge 45,000 Kiss fans and, not least, the bars will be open until 3 a.m. Things could get rowdy. But de Grace, 52, says hospitals and police in the Vancouver area have been highly co-ordinated for emergencies ever since the Stanley Cup riots of June, 1994. The response team's attention will be on the hospital's computers as a message goes out just before midnight to log off all machines, except those running medical equipment. Twenty minutes later, if all is well, the networks will be phased back online. On the home front, de Grace's two teenage daughters will be partying with friends while her husband helps out as a volunteer at the hospital. But even an emergency group needs a celebration of sorts. At midnight, says de Grace, her team will take a 60-second party break - "then it's back to work."
Director, Year 2000 Project, Canadian Airlines: No one will be watching the clock more nervously on New Year's Eve than airline managers. Neither Air Canada nor Canadian Airlines will have any domestic flights in the air at midnight. But Air Canada will have three flights heading to Europe at that hour and Canadian will have two en route to Asia and one to Europe. Bentkowski, 47, who has run Canadian's Y2K preparedness program for the past two years, will spend the night at the airline's systems operations centre at Calgary International Airport where he will monitor information about airline and airport operations as it flows in via satellite from around the world. While his wife and two children pass the evening quietly at home, Bentkowski will stay on duty until at least midday on Jan. 1. "When I'm convinced this is a non-event," he says, "I'll go home, pop open the champagne, and enjoy the millennium like everyone else."
Chief correspondent for CBC-TV's The National: CBC-TV and CBC Newsworld will broadcast live for 26 hours straight, starting at 4:30 a.m. Toronto time on Dec. 31, and Mansbridge, 51, plans to participate throughout. He hopes to take a four-hour break at midday on Dec. 31, and will rest either in his fourth-floor office or his modest dressing room. CBC will carry footage of New Year's Eve celebrations around the world, beginning with the tiny Kiribati islands in the South Pacific and on through New Zealand to the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, a papal mass in St. Peter's Square in Rome and the Queen's trip down the River Thames to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. While his wife Cynthia Dale cares for their five-month-old son, Mansbridge will provide voice-overs for most of the global events, as well as hourly newscasts and interviews with guests. CBC correspondents will provide live coast-to-coast coverage of New Year's Eve celebrations in Canada. "It should be fun," Mansbridge says, "but hopefully we won't be dealing with calamities."
LT.-COL. CHRISTIAN JUNEAU
A leader of Operation Abacus: He describes the Ottawa command-and-control centre as "the hub of everything that will be happening in Canada." About 500 troops, along with a few air force and navy advisers - will be set up in a civil servant training centre, complete with dormitories. While Juneau's wife and two daughters celebrate the arrival of 2000 in Montreal, he and his group will be cloistered in a room buzzing with activity: some soldiers will be monitoring weather, others will be communicating with the regional command centres. Anything that goes wrong domestically will be marked on a 15-foot by 10-foot map of Canada. "It's what we call the Bird Table," says Juneau, 40, "because it gives a bird's-eye view of what's happening across the country." Operation Abacus will continue - likely until the end of January - until the federal government gives the all clear. "We're like firemen at the fire station," says Juneau, "standing by, hoping nothing happens. But if it does, we'll be out there."
Executive vice-president and chief information officer, TD Bank Financial Group: He calls himself "a paranoid optimist," confident that customers will have no trouble on Jan. 1 retrieving their money from Green Machines and using credit and debit cards. Foulkes, 45, has led Toronto Dominion's $100-million Y2K effort and will have as many as 300 extra staff on duty across the country from Dec. 31 to Jan. 5. From the bank's Toronto headquarters, Foulkes will watch closely as the year 2000 arrives 13 to 18 hours earlier in New Zealand, Japan and Australia. Through its Australian subsidiaries, TD will be on the ground in Melbourne and Sydney, with employees testing ABM cards and making debit-card purchases in the wee hours of Jan. 1. Foulkes's crew will watch as those transactions hit the computers in Canada. Testing in Europe, then Canada will follow as a succession of midnights sweeps across the time zones. While Foulkes won't be with his wife and two kids to greet a new century, TD staff "are certainly planning parties for January and February" - to celebrate, they hope, a bug-free 2000.
Calgary's chief of police: At 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, Silverberg will be on stage at Olympic Plaza, wishing those attending Calgary's big New Year's festival "a safe transition over midnight." By 11:45, she'll leave her husband and two children at the party and head to the emergency operations centre, or EOC. There, Silverberg, 50, will join police, fire, utility, transit and health workers to watch what happens as the clock strikes midnight. On the streets, her uniforms will be out in force: 365 officers, double the number who worked last New Year's, will be on duty. They are ready for anything from Y2K-bug disruptions - such as lights or heat going out - to out-of-control celebrants. Under a program called Community Action in Response to Emergencies (CARE), this has become one giant block watch. Many Calgarians have learned from widely circulated videotapes how to organize groups of 20 to 25 homes and how to prepare for an emergency. "The idea is that if any emergency service is swamped," says Silverberg, "the community could take care of itself." Y2K sparked all this activity, but Calgary will now be ready for future crises. "This," she says, "has been a very positive spinoff."
Maclean's December 20, 1999