Make your way up the driveway to Disaster Service Technology Manager Lou Harris’ modest house in Walpole and everything looks, well, ordinary. Ordinary that is except for the two 50-foot metal towers that soar over the house like official sentinels and — oh yes — the dozen or so antennae sticking out of the roof. And then when you step though the door, there’s the shop full of wires, circuit boards, tools, and piles of mysterious ham radio gear. “I do have areas I’m allowed to pollute with my stuff, he says chuckling… And believe me, they ARE polluted.” Lou says his wife, Donna, herself a ham radio operator, motorcycle enthusiast and a volunteer at an animal shelter, doesn’t really mind, but she does, he says, definitely have her limits.
You might be thinking Lou Harris is an ordinary, good–natured, geek hobbyist. But he’s not. His talent, time, and passion are put to use serving the community during local and national disasters. He has braved tornados, fires, and floods to keep the Red Cross’s communication technologies up and running. In the downtime between crises, he is endlessly inventing, innovating, preparing for and training others for the next disaster. Why? “Because it doesn’t take much to make life better for a fellow human being in trouble,” he says with a shrug. And as for his bit of geeky genius, well, that’s just a gift from above says the talented techie who, at age 5, already intoxicated with technology, horrified and delighted his parents when he handily took apart the family’s complicated multi-line kitchen wall phone. That early escapade set the tone for a career ranging from mechanical technician to software engineer. “Not bad,&rdquo ; he says with a smile, for a “college dropout” and a young man who was “easily distracted.”
But when it comes to helping other people, Harris is all focus all the time. As a pilot (Oh yes, did we mention he is a pilot?) for nonprofit Angel Flight, he ferried sick passengers around New England and after Hurricane Katrina, he flew support trips to and from New Orleans carrying people and supplies. In other disaster situations he, with his amateur radio club colleagues, used his skills as a ham radio operator when communications infrastructure was downed. But it was 911 that ultimately led him, like many others, to the Red Cross. As a ham radio operator assigned to support the Red Cross during the aftermath of the WTC attack, he felt that the collaboration was perfect. A modest man who consistently downplays his role, he recounts the feeling he got at the end of one long day in New York when he was walking back to his hotel to finally get some sleep. A bus passed by slowly and the passengers applauded. “I had on a Red Cross jacket and I knew that was what they applauded…not me.”
Harris — when not riding his motorcycle, reading science fiction, hunting down rare stamps, or repairing his equipment — dreams up new ideas to support Red Cross disaster activities. One of his recent projects is what he nicknamed “The Bus,” a DST (Disaster Services Technology) resource vehicle. Noting there was a clunky quarter–century–old 28¬–foot bloodmobile sitting around one of the Chapters, he got permission to repurpose the truck to serve as a satellite–ready mobile communications unit complete with phones, fax, generator, hotspot, and back–up hotspot. “Fixing that up was a great outlet,” he says. “Kept me off the streets for quite a while.”
If there is a crisis, the street is exactly where you will find Lou Harris and his team. And “team” is the operant word. One of the problems in his line of work, he explains, is that sometimes potential volunteers are scared off thinking the work is just too high–tech for them. “Not so!” he says emphatically. If you have a desire to help, have some interest in learning about technology, can read and follow directions, and you’re willing to take seven classes, then you are ready. “The introductory class will scare the hell out of you, but after that it’s easy,” he says. “There’s no tech job you can’t do if you have a phone. You just call someone who knows more than you and he or she will help you fix it.”
Harris has recently been promoted to manager, the kind of thing, he explains, that you work for and want badly. He admits, however, that, on achieving the goal, his elation was punctured by a moment of terror. “It’s a big level of responsibility, but overall I have a deep sense of empowerment knowing I have the skills to help even more.”
It seems that “help” is what this passionate techie tinkerer lives for. “Look,” he says. “You play the hand you are dealt. I’ve been dealt some good cards so that means I’m obliged to help those who haven’t been. It’s simple.”
Why? “Because it doesn’t take much to make life better for a fellow human being in trouble.”
To become a Volunteer with the Eastern Massachusetts Red Cross, please visit: www.redcross.org/easternmass-volunteer.