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Psychological effects of the Millennium: Briefing #1

Community readiness planning
(posted on this site Dec 1999, updated from a briefing for local councillors on 16 October 1999)

What problems could occur in the new Millennium? How well prepared are our communities to cope with them? How can they respond to unexpected disruption? Part 1 explains the problem. Part 2 suggests how to organise a Community Readiness plan. Part 3 offers a household checklist and urges "Good neighbour" vigilance.

Part 1: Planning for the unknown

After the unexpected world oil crisis in 1973 Shell realised that it is impossible to predict the future accurately in a changing world. They realised that it is wiser to plan for several possible futures or scenarios - neutral, good and bad. The easiest to predict is the minimum change or business-as-usual scenario. This is what most people rely on. But unexpected changes can also bring new opportunities, serious problems or disasters. Thinking about these other possible futures is called scenario planning. Being prepared to cope with them is called contingency planning. The ultimate effects of the Millennium Bug problem are unknown, but not unexpected.

We can use scenario planning our personal lives, careers and businesses. We make a contingency plan for potential disasters every time we buy an insurance policy. But we can also reduce the risks of accidents by buying new tyres for our car, or smoke alarms for our homes. Scenarios are not all bad - they include golden opportunities as well as potential nightmares. Thinking ahead helps us to be more prepared for the unexpected.

Millennium Scenarios
Eos helps clients to develop plans for their work at least 5 years ahead and personal lives much further. For many months we have discussed how they can be prepared for changes in 2000. We have identified three main Millennium scenarios: 1) Business as usual - minimum change; 2) Celebration - where confidence rises through the year creating new opportunities; and 3) Rough ride - moderate to severe disruption through January with continuing problems for 2-3 months. This is more likely in some regions and countries than others.

Some problems will be obvious in the first week of January. Others may take weeks or months to develop if there is disruption in other countries - from shortage of foreign car spares or food to global recession. If there are dramatic events in some parts of the world in January these may start a Millennium transition with delayed psychological effects leading to significant events later in the year. Our immediate concern is the possible effect of a rough-ride scenario on communities in January and how they can prepare and respond to it.

Possible computer failures and national planning
The UK Government’s Action 2000 project has urged businesses to minimise the risk of computer failures due to hardware or software problems for the date 2000. Several years ago it was realised that many systems are likely to become unreliable or fail on or after 1/1/2000. In the UK huge investments have been made to minimise this risk. Contingency plans have been made to protect utilities (electricity, gas, water and phones), transport, finance, health services and essential supplies such as food and fuel. But there is still a small but significant possibility of primary or secondary systems failing. If these coincide with bad weather they could cause serious problems.

Potential problems have been played down by the UK Government and the media. But the risks are real enough for insurance companies to refuse to cover losses caused by Millennium systems failures, even in cars. The Foreign Office recently produced a list of countries expected to be at high risk of Millennium systems failures.

Potential local problems
It is not possible to know which systems will fail, or how the effect of one failure may lead to others. Some problems will be immediately obvious on 1st January. Others may lead to progressive or unexpected failure of services days or weeks later. Other problems could develop from public anxiety leading to panic buying in December leading to food or fuel shortages (these have been successfully averted in UK by the Government's low key strategy). The most obvious risks are not computer related but the predictable rise in accidents and violence due to increased alcohol consumption during New Year celebrations. Police and medical staff are on standby for several days for this and many pubs have chosen to close to avoid it.

The highest risk from computer problems continues throughout January - potentially the coldest month of the year. Failures that lead to shortage of water, fuel, food or money could place vulnerable members of the community at severe risk within 2-3 days.

Millennium readiness in our county
We first enquired about community readiness plans 20 months ago. From recent enquiries to our County, Borough and local Parish Council it is evident that extensive plans exist at high levels in Government and public services, and in the County and Borough to maintain routine community services. But there have been no plans to brief or involve local Parish Councils except in one district where they insisted on local involvement.

Although emergency services are on standby for increased accidents in the first 2-3 days there are no published plans for widespread computer related problems in the County other than the standard UK Disaster Response Plan. This is designed for local disasters (floods, crashes, bombs etc) and assumes that additional resources can be brought in from neighbouring areas or provided by the army.

On current information it appears that the bigger the problems are, or the longer they last, the less likely it is that public services will be able to help local communities. Hospitals and police can cancel staff leave for a few days, but not for weeks. In the worst case communities may have to survive for several days, even weeks on their own resources.

Despite this potential weakness in the Disaster Response Plan neither the UK Government nor County or Borough Councils have any plans to involve communities in Millennium readiness plans. There was no advice to individual households by October. [Leaflets from the Government, County and Borough were distributed in early December, mainly as re-assurance plus emergency hotline numbers. By 29 December there was still been no advice to Parish Councils. It will be too late to distribute them in January if severe problems occur.

The need for Millennium Readiness plans in local communities
The absence of any advice for local communities seems unwise. If some communities have to fend for themselves for several days or weeks priority must be given to looking after their most vulnerable members - the old or infirm, those in poorly insulated housing and those unable to afford to stockpile extra food, money or fuel. If there are fuel or transport problems local residents who usually rely on support from relatives in other areas may also be at risk. Our village has a relatively affluent population and generally good housing so it should be at less risk than many other communities. But some planning would still seem prudent. Poorer communities (including in large urban areas) will have large numbers of potentially vulnerable members and limited resources to help them.

Using community resources
In other countries and some parts of the UK local communities have been preparing Millennium Readiness programmes for over a year. Many are using the same teams who usually regularly organise local activities and events to prepare local contingency plans.

People are a community's richest resource with many talents and useful experience. These are seldom recognised except in times of celebration (eg Village Fetes) or crisis (eg after bad storms, floods or terrorist bombs). Some resources we take for granted like local shops are vulnerable to sudden changes in trade.

Millennium readiness programmes in other countries have been organised by existing community groups eg churches, PTA’s, Over 60’s clubs, youth groups and other charity or support groups combining their information and organising skills. Such organisations know their local area and facilities and are already in contact with potentially vulnerable residents.

Some communities have developed local bartering systems called LETS to exchange local services without relying on money. These could be useful for longer periods of disruption, especially if credit card systems are affected by computer problems.

Older residents are potentially at risk but they are also a special resource. People who live on small pensions or remember the war are more experienced at living with minimum resources than young families. Some always keep a small supply of essentials. They may have valuable advice for younger residents if times get difficult. But they may need help with heating and shopping if public transport or other services are disrupted. Everyone can play a part in a Community Readiness plan.

Part 2: Preparing a Community Readiness programme

Local communities have about 6 weeks left to make their plans. These need to be organised by early December since additional resources (eg portable heating) may become scarce after then and people will be preparing for Christmas. [These dates have now passed but the same proposals still apply to communities responding to severe disruption].

Stage 1 - Resources
The first stage is to identify all organisations that could be involved:

Stage 2 - Co-ordination
The second stage is to organise a joint meeting of representatives from the above groups.

Stage 3 - Communication
The third stage is to implement tasks agreed in the local action plan eg ·

Stage 4 (the first week) - Operation and vigilance
Finally there need to be plans for daily meetings to evaluate actual problems in the first week of the New Year. Hopefully there will be little to report. But these should co-ordinate reports from all groups in the village who may detect problems so these can be responded to within 24 hours. Other plans for this period will emerge from the discussions in Stage 2.

Confidence not panic
The Government may have held back on briefing local communities for fear of causing panic. In practice not involving the population in advance planning is more likely to cause anxiety in the final weeks leading up to the New Year. Saying that plans exist is not enough. [In practice very little public interest or concern has been reported in the media].

Sensible, low key Community Readiness programmes should help to re-assure local residents that practical plans are in hand in case they are needed. They should reduce anxiety for potentially vulnerable people and increase confidence in the community.

Even if there are no problems this exercise will not be wasted. It could encourage greater awareness and support for community groups. The same co-ordinating teams may also decide to organise community celebrations later in the year.

Further action
If you would like to be involved in a Community Readiness programme you can discuss it with your neighbours and any groups you already belong to, or contact your local Parish or Borough Councillors. If you represent an organisation or local business you can contact your local Parish Council.

Household checklist
You can check the potential effects of potential Millennium problems on your own home and family by considering some of these situations. They are also useful in the event of severe weather conditions. How would you or your family be affected, including older relatives living in other areas? What simple preparations can you make?

Good neighbour vigilance
In the event of any of these problems arising please consider whether any neighbours may be affected by similar problems. Check if they need help (e.g. heat, shopping or transport If you cannot help try to put them in contact with a local community organisation that can help.

page updated 25 June 2000 © Eos Career Services 1999

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