After a disaster local government, state representatives, and FEMA work together to perform a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) to determine the impact and magnitude of the damage and survey the needs of the community.
In 2008 the Government Accountability Office reported these initial damage estimates immediately following a disaster have been off by over 55%.
The inaccuracies with the preliminary damage assessments has caused FEMA problems in trying to determine the funding levels needed and caused local communities problems in determining resources needed for recovery efforts, such as workload for debris removal contractors and building code inspectors.
In a May 2012 the DHS Office of Inspector General documented several reasons for the inaccuracies of PDAs:
- Preliminary Damage Assessment Team may lack knowledge to determine responsible party
- Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams may lack insurance documents
- Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams may have access constraints
- Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams emphasize on meeting per capita impact indicators
The last reason is probably the most pervasive and error prone. Once a Preliminary Damage Assessment Team surpasses the Statewide or Countywide per capita impact indicators, many Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams stop collecting damage assessment estimates.
I should note that these reports are written from the perspective of FEMA interviews and FEMA estimating process reviews. Although the GAO report looked at state and local estimates, “we did not review the estimating processes of these entities.”
And while I do believe the issues outlined above to be true, what underlines the problem is the lack of local government official involvement in the process.
From my conversations with local officials, the local governments lead the state and FEMA officials on “disaster tours”. In many cases it is FEMA or the FEMA contractors that do the work in determining the estimates of damage on a community. Not having data resources upfront most likely the reason why the Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams “lack knowledge to determine the responsible party” and “lack insurance documents”. FEMA starts from scratch each time it goes into a community to conduct a preliminary damage assessment.
A better way is where local governments take more of an ownership of the preliminary damage assessment and one that uses today’s technology. Here are three changes that would benefit the process:
1. Insert the preliminary damage assessment into current local government workflows. By incorporating PDA data collection into other local government department workflows, the emergency manager shares the workload. Public works can collect debris information as they inspect and open roadways. Permitting or Code Enforcement can conduct structural damage assessments as they placard buildings for safety. Parks departments can conduct their own assessment as they inventory their lands after a disaster.
2. Use mobile devices for field data collection. The technology has reached a functional and cost point where data should be collected in the field using a tablet device (see my earlier post on mobile devices for emergency management). The savings from hand entering paper forms; storing digital photos, GPS locations and damage assessment data in one location; having consistent, repeatable results; and gaining real-time situational awareness should overcome any executive push back that local governments may encounter when procuring tablets.
3. Preload and stage PDA-specific local government data offsite. GIS, tax assessment, and insurance data almost always exist in some form at the local governments. By preloading and staging this data in a safe location ensures that the data will be reliable and readily accessible if a disaster disrupts local computing resources.
Having damage assessment information centrally located will provide FEMA with a blueprint of where the damage occurred, who was affected, and who was insured. This dramatically increase the estimate accuracy as well as decreases the time to complete the assessment and have recovery dollars flow into the local jurisdictions.
The private sector has started to help by offering several solutions to tackle this problem. Some tax assessment software, GIS software, and work order management companies are adapting their applications to incorporate the preliminary damage assessment. Emergency Management software companies, such as Crisis Track, have built holistic preliminary damage assessment applications better targeting the PDA’s specific requirements. The good news for emergency managers is that there are many alternatives from which to choose.
The federal government stated that initially estimates are widely off the mark. These estimates can improve and become more efficient if local governments take more ownership of the preliminary damage assessment process and use today’s technology advances.