Access to Technology Is Crucial During Disaster Response

Jill L. Ferguson

Operation Amberjack, Team Rubicon’s response to Hurricane Michael, would not be as effective if it weren’t for our partnerships, such as the one with Information Technology Disaster Resource Center or the IDTRC, a non-profit founded by husband and wife team Joe and Debbie Hillis. I tagged along with Joe and his volunteer team for an afternoon as they attended to the technology needs of a high school that was being turned into a Red Cross shelter for more than one thousand people in Panama Beach City, Florida. 

When we first arrived on the campus, we were greeted by members of the National Guard who were both securing the site and helping set up a tent for the pet area; the cots, blankets, and pillows in the sleeping quarters; and anything else that needed to be completed before the displaced persons arrived. Joe and his two volunteer assistants, one on loan from Hewlett Packard and another who owned his own tech company, assessed spaces that would be used for the housing units and the 500-person seating area in a big tent that would serve as the cafeteria to determine where the satellite dishes and routers would go. And then Joe met with the school district’s information services managers to understand their capabilities and limitations. He also met with FEMA personnel to determine their needs and wishes, and then with the satellite installer from DISH.  



Joe said that ITDRC was founded in 2008 to “provide communities with the technical resources, such as computer needs and Internet access, necessary to continue operations and begin recovery after a disaster” and that ITDRC deploys with Team Rubicon on any Type 1, Type 2 or Type 3 incidents. (TR, like FEMA, has 5 Types that they deploy to, and the Types are categorized by levels of complexity with a Type 1 Incident being the most complex.) ITDRC provides temporary technology solutions for city management offices, first responders, schools, libraries, and other public service entities immediately after a disaster. “Anything we do has to benefit the whole community. That’s our only litmus test,” Joe said.  

Joe met people from Team Rubicon for the first time in 2012, when he was in FEMA’s ICS 300 and 400 classes. He and ITDRC were asked to work with Team Rubicon during Hurricane Sandy response and recovery, and then again after the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in 2013. “It was there that we figured out where we fit in with TR,” Joe said. “TR is to us what we are to them. They help us with logistics and we help them with tech needs. It’s a very healthy relationship and we run together six to eight months per year.”  

ITDRC’s  headquarters is in Fort Worth, which is where TR’s National Operations Center is located, though Joe and Debbie spend much of their year living out of their big trailer wherever there is a disaster.  Much of the equipment used in ITDRC’s  disaster response operations is donated by tech companies or purchased through grant funding or private donations. They have a database of 1200 volunteers but can get more people through their partnerships with technology companies.  

During Operation Amberjack, Joe explained that they were running technology at 44 sites, from southern Georgia to Panama City Beach, including at TR’s forward operating base (FOB) in Mariana, Florida. “We use an inventory management system to keep track of everything,” Joe said. He said his role is to support the volunteers and partners, like Team Rubicon.   

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