AV People: Joe Hillis of ITDRC

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By Molly Stillman

You may or may not know Joe Hillis. He’s been a systems engineer who spent most of his life working IT in public safety before retiring in 2004. He then went to work for himself as an IT consultant for small businesses. He knows technology, he lives technology and he breathes technology.

But Joe has a passion for technology that spans beyond the walls of a boardroom or small business — Joe knows that technology is a life source for people and when disaster strikes and the technology is taken away, that can be debilitating.

After 9/11, the concept of a national technology guard of volunteers was introduced to Congress. “We thought what a great idea this would be,” said Joe. “But nothing happened for five years and finally in 2008, we decided it wasn’t going to happen on our time, so I co-founded the ITDRC, Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, with a few others in the industry. I happened to be the guy with the most flexible schedule, so I’m now the operations director for the non-profit. I spend a good part of my time just running the organization.”

So ever since ITDRC was founded, Joe has split his time between his consulting and his non-profit. The ITDRC is a non-profit of IT and technology professionals that help communities in disaster.

“We’ve served in nearly two dozen disaster areas since we started in 2008,” said Joe. “Everything from wildfires to Hurricanes Isaac, Irene and Sandy, and tornadoes in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri.”

This past fall, the ITDRC was put to the ultimate test. A few days before Hurricane Sandy  made landfall, Joe and the ITDRC were contacted by FEMA in advance of the disaster.

“This wasn’t really the way things usually go for us,” recalled Joe. “FEMA reached out to us; they knew the scope of the storm was so big and the impact was going to be so large they wanted us all on the same page. So, we got involved before Sandy ever made landfall and began directing resources into New York and worked with our partners to make sure we were prepared.”

Sandy was by far the biggest disaster ITDRC had dealt with to date. Joe was deployed to New York for a month and got home shortly after Thanksgiving. He made another trip back up there after the first of the year for a follow up visit.

“Our biggest concern was getting satellite and Wi-Fi connectivity in the affected areas. So, I did everything from coordinating efforts to actually installing. It was soup to nuts kind of work,” said Joe. “We had to make sure that our volunteer efforts from our organization’s standpoint were met with a need. So any equipment or service we could get our hands on, we needed to match it with a need in the area.”

Joe doesn’t work alone though. Of course he has his colleagues and his volunteers, but his most important partner in his efforts with ITDRC is his wife of eight years, Debbie.

Joe is the father of three children, all boys, Chris, Brandon and Trever, and they’re all grown and out of the house. And since the boys have left, Debbie and Joe spend almost six to seven months a year traveling. Between their own work and their work with the non-profit, they’re all over the country.

Although Debbie does A LOT with the organization, Joe says Debbie’s gift is truly in her compassion for disaster victims. “I like to call her the Chief Social Officer,” he said. “Debbie has that way of connecting with people to convey that everything is going to be OK. I’m more of a tech person, so when we go into a disaster area, she usually handles the social side. I remember in Branson after the tornadoes, we’d go into some of those small businesses and Debbie would talk to the owners – she was that calming person that made those connections with people who had just lost everything. Those people just needed someone to reassure them and Debbie does that so well.”

Joe knows that with running any non-profit there are challenges and there are rewards.

“Our biggest challenge is always funding – finding that constant revenue stream to make sure we can do everything we need, want and would like to do,” he said. “When we were in New York, it was a dynamic thing, we’d have a donation come in and so we could do more. It was constantly changing.”

But the rewards far outweigh any challenge they face.

“There are so many rewards doing what we do,” Joe said. “When you’re able to recover someone’s data or watch someone make a phone call to a family member that they haven’t spoken to in over a week and that family member has no idea if their loved one is even okay, THAT is rewarding.”

In New York, they were able to bring Internet and Wi-Fi connectivity to the Rockaway Peninsula, reconnecting thousands of residents with the outside world again.

Joe noted that they’re always looking for who they can help the most. What can they do that helps the MOST people? It’s not about him; it’s about his cause.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can get involved with ITDRC by registering as a volunteer or giving a donation, you can find out more at http://www.itdrc.org.

Thank you Joe. It’s people like you that make what we do matter.

Molly Stillman is the director of marketing and new business development for rAVe [Publications]. Reach her at molly@ravepubs.com