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Friday, October 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Firefighters Drill For Y2K

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Firefighters in Seattle's 33 fire stations participated in a citywide drill yesterday that virtually cut them off from their lifeline: the Fire Alarm Center at Belltown's Station 2.

With just three months to go until a Y2K computer glitch conceivably could shut down the communications system, the department prepared for the worst by shutting it down itself from 10 a.m. to noon.

Year 2000 (Y2K) problems could come from older computer systems that use only two digits to designate years. They could thus mistake the year 2000, or "00," as 1900, causing malfunctions or breakdowns.

Some 180 mock emergencies were part of yesterday's drill, which had battalion chiefs barking orders and fire engines responding around town, though without lights or sirens flashing.

"One of the most critical things is the radio system, and we haven't tested the system for managing emergencies," said Battalion Chief John Gablehouse.

Normally, a 911 call comes in to the 911 and Radio Dispatch Center in the new West Precinct, where dispatchers patch it to the Fire Alarm Center. Dispatchers there contact the station nearest the emergency so firefighters can be on their way within minutes.

But yesterday, the Alarm Center did not call the 33 individual stations. Rather, it called only the city's five battalion stations, essentially making them makeshift dispatch centers for their parts of town, with battalion chiefs in charge of reaching their stations via a limited-distance radio that would work in a Y2K shutdown.

At Fire Station 17 in the University District, which is also the station for Battalion 6, the first mock emergency was reported at 10:05 a.m., and had it been real, it would have been a biggie: a total power failure at Northwest Hospital, where the backup generator had failed and the hospital needed immediate help transporting patients.

From the moment the mock call came in, four people at the station - including Battalion Chief William Hepburn - were scrambling, hectically answering calls, plotting locations on a map, issuing commands.

"The key here is for the battalion chief to know what units are available and dispatch units accordingly," Gablehouse said.

As a second part to the drill, fire engines from every station drove a "damage assessment route" - a 10-minute emergency drill in which two units from each station drove a predesignated, highly populated route in the city to scan for fires, power outages or other life-threatening situations that could have occurred in a citywide emergency.

The units then radioed their battalion chief. "After 10 or 15 minutes, we have a complete status of the whole city," Gablehouse said, noting that this marked the first time every station has participated in such a drill.

When real emergencies were reported, firefighters broke away from the drill to answer the call. One such call came just after 10 a.m., with the report of a house fire in South Seattle that proved not to be serious, Gablehouse said.

An assessment of how things went for the day, including what worked and what didn't, will be ready in about a week, said department spokeswoman Sheila Strehle.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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