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Conduct a Rapid Damage Assessment

May 30, 2015

With the ongoing widespread flooding and tornadoes affecting the southern United States, I’m compelled to write this post. It is directed towards the emergency managers and incident commanders in affected towns and counties and is meant to provide you with guidance on how to expedite disaster declaration using simple off-the-shelf technology. One of the chief goals of emergency managers should be to decrease the amount of time it takes for survivors to receive the assistance they require. This was my goal for five years while I worked for FEMA as a Geospatial Coordinator. Fulcrum will continue to offer our services to any emergency manager who needs assistance.

When a disaster happens in the United States, it has to reach specifically defined economic thresholds in order for the Federal government to distribute financial assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for appropriating funds to affected states. It is primarily the responsibility of the states to demonstrate to FEMA that they have met the damage levels for the Individual Assistance program. When FEMA declares a disaster, it almost always refers to Public Assistance, not Individual Assistance. Individual Assistance is how the public can receive assistance with their damaged home and rental assistance while they are displaced. This blog post is meant to help emergency managers expedite the disaster declaration process around Individual Assistance and get aid to survivors faster.

Ground Preliminary Damage Assessment

The only way to conduct a fast damage assessment is to get relief staff in the affected area who are trained or know how to properly define the levels of damage. The categories or names of damage levels can vary widely. If the goal of emergency managers is to get state and federal assistance fast, it makes sense to use FEMA’s damage classifications and definitions. Local emergency managers could be deployed to damaged areas and can rapidly start documenting the damage in the language FEMA needs. If this damage assessment could be shared in real-time with State Emergency Managers at the Emergency Operation Center and FEMA, then it could help expedite the Individual Assistance (IA) declaration.

After every disaster, FEMA’s GIS specialists build a situation map from all available spatial data, on the FEMA GeoPlatform. The locally produced damage assessment eventually shows up on the disaster map page if is shared with FEMA. Using one of the prebuilt apps in our App Gallery: Earthquake PDA, Fire PDA, Inundation PDA (flood), Wind PDA (tornado), locals would be able to conduct a damage assessment locally using the proper FEMA classification. Subsequently, FEMA, using their FEMA GeoPlatform, could verify the damage assessment for accuracy.

Setup Instructions


Start with one of the prebuilt PDA apps in Fulcrum’s App Gallery: Earthquake PDA, Fire PDA, Inundation PDA (flood), Wind PDA (tornado). Each of these have the definitions FEMA uses to conduct their own damage assessments. In each app, there are menus outlining difference between Destroyed, Major Damage, Minor Damage and Affected. Once the app is in your Fulcrum account, create user accounts for whomever is headed into the affected area.


Because Fulcrum is so easy to use, and the apps contain the classification definitions, it takes only moments to launch the app and start collecting. Those individuals conducting house-by-house assessments do not need to be highly trained with years of experience. The goal is to define the correct level of damage to the house and catalog photos of the house for verification later. On some occasions, there is no internet connection or mobile service. In these cases, it would help to cache map tiles on Fulcrum in the area you are headed, or load offline MBTile maps through the website and pull them to each device. To cache map tiles, just zoom into the areas you are going and scroll around.

Tip: Make sure when conducting the damage assessment that each point is placed on top of each house and not in the street where the assessor is standing.


To set up sharing, enable data shares from the app dashboard. While your assessment is on going you can send the CSV link to the FEMA Geospatial Coordinator in your region. You can find the correct individual by looking them up on this FEMA site. If you can’t find the Geospatial Coordinator for your region, call the FEMA Regional Office and ask for the contact information.

Below is a video guide of how to setup, deploy and share your PDA with ArcGIS Online, which the FEMA GeoPlatform is built upon.

From my time at FEMA to today, I’m personally driven to help disaster survivors receive aid faster than the current system provides. If any emergency managers need help setting up Fulcrum or have questions about deployment, I can be reached at cory@fulcrumapp.com.