The Windshield Survey

Regardless of the cause, the initial response following a large-scale incident is determining the size and scope of the impact on the community. (Photo by Jon Androwski.)

Scenario: During the overnight hours, your region was hit by a series of storms and tornadoes, which caused significant damage. As dawn approaches, emergency responders are directed to conduct a windshield survey to gain situational awareness, allowing emergency managers to develop a common operating picture, develop incident priorities, and initiate a response and recovery plan. Your station is ordered to conduct a survey within the first-due area and report your findings within the next two hours.

Fortunately, large-scale emergencies and disasters that overwhelm resources and communities are a rare occurrence. However, when they do happen, the ability to quickly determine the extent of the incident and an estimate of the community impact are critical to developing a common operating picture, developing a plan to respond to the incident, and initiating community recovery. Much like patient assessment, size-up, or triage, the initial damage assessment serves as the starting point for the response and recovery process.

Damage Evaluation

Regardless of the cause, the initial response following a large-scale incident is determining the size and scope of the impact on the community. The windshield survey or initial damage assessment allows incident commanders (ICs) to determine how much damage has occurred; evaluate immediate needs to ensure the health, safety, and security of the community; and provide a basis for near- and long-term needs such as mass-care shelters, food, and infrastructure restoration.

Assessment of structures in the damaged area is focused on the safety of the building, the ability of the infrastructure to support sanitation for occupants, and the security of the structure from further damage. Generally speaking, structures may be free from impact; impacted; or have minor, moderate, or major damage.

Impacted: Impacted buildings are those buildings that have not been damaged, but the disaster makes the ability to access or use the structure difficult or impossible. For example, a home in a flood plain that is lifted off the ground but that has water under and surrounding the building is impacted. The structural stability is unaffected, but access is diminished.

Minor damage: A building that has received minor damage has received damage to noncritical components-for example, minor drywall damage with no damage to sewer, sanitation, and water systems. These buildings can be used for habitation with minor repair. For example, a building that has received damage to windows or roof coverings with the roof deck still intact is classified as minor damage. The building is fit for human habitation and can be made secure with minor repairs, such as boarding the windows or placing a tarp over roof openings.

Moderate damage: Buildings that have received damage to structurally significant members or systems but can be repaired are considered to be moderately damaged. An example of a moderately damaged building would be one where there is significant damage to a nonload-bearing wall. This will require a larger level of temporary repair to make the structure secure for habitation.

Major damage: Finally, buildings in which the structural members have been significantly damaged or destroyed or which have had the sewer, sanitation, or electrical systems destroyed are considered to have received major damage or are classified as destroyed since they are no longer fit for human habitation. This also includes total damage to support systems with no damage to the structure itself. For example, floods often destroy sewer and water systems below raised trailers. This makes the trailer unfit for habitation until the systems can be replaced or repaired. The structure is sound but unfit for habitation, so it is classified as either major damage or destroyed.

Health Assessment

In addition to providing an estimate of the overall damage to structures within the community, the initial damage assessment also provides an estimate on the current and projected threats to the health of the community. This includes the development of a current casualty estimate as well as future health threats from recovery operations, water and food safety, and sanitation needs. Following disasters, there will likely be an increase in injuries because of recovery and cleanup including soft tissue injuries from saws and debris, eye injuries, and damage to bones and joints as well as lower back injuries.

As part of the initial damage assessment, responders will want to note the status of critical infrastructure and key resources. This will include the condition of roadways, bridges, and tunnels; the ability of critical rail, airport, and marine facilities to function; and the operational condition of the electrical distribution network, sewer, and sanitation systems. The condition of these systems will help determine the speed at which assistance can be delivered to the impacted area and the life support capabilities for the community.

Example of damage assessment requirements for water damage

  • Estimating the depth of water
  • 2½ inches per course of bricks
  • 4 or 8 inches per course of siding
  • 7 inches per stair riser
  • 8 inches per course of cinder block
  • 36 inches to the doorknob
  • 6 feet, 7 inches for a standard door

Community Impact

Once the initial damage assessment is completed, the information is compiled and integrated with other reports to provide a global, community impact assessment. Additional information from nontraditional sources, such as social media, will also be included in an effort to develop a valid situational assessment of the incident scope and size. From this initial information, ICs and emergency managers can identify response and recovery priorities, determine resource needs, and begin the process of developing and implementing a response and recovery plan. This includes the rapid deployment of available resources as well as determining resources needed for sustained operations and support needed for the community and response elements.

Rapid assessment of the condition of a community is critical to establishing incident priorities, response planning-and a recovery strategy. This assessment is dependent on emergency responders and trained damage assessment teams to identify the condition of structures within the community and the ability to maintain community infrastructure and support. Emergency responders should be familiar with the damage assessment requirements of emergency operations centers during and following large-scale incidents to improve short- and long-term operations and rapid community recovery.