‘I’m having an identity crisis…’
‘We have a fashion emergency over here.’
‘It’s a recipe for DISASTER!’
I bet you heard expressions like these before. Maybe you’ve even said similar ones yourself.
In everyday conversation, we use words like crisis, emergency, and disaster to express desperation, disbelief, or frustration. Especially on our “bad days.”
These three words generally describe a disruptive and damaging event. But they also mean different things to different people. So you might ask, what is the difference?
The Critical Hit
A crisis is a critical situation that threatens the functioning or survival of an individual, community, organization, or state. It can strike anyone, anytime, and anywhere. The question is, how do you know if you are experiencing a crisis?
A crisis has three key features: it is unexpected, unique, and largely uncontrollable. It affects something or someone’s ability to function or survive. If a situation fits the description, it’s indeed a crisis!
Some crises occur from natural disturbances, others arise out of technological breakdown or human misconduct.
Communities struck by an earthquake could fall apart, corporations could go bankrupt because of product failure, and famous personalities could even lose their careers due to a crisis. You get the picture!
Managing a crisis is difficult and stressful, too.
The sudden impact and high-stakes of crises call for quick and flexible responses. But since they are unforeseen events, there are no readily available plans to solve it. And because they are often unfamiliar situations, there is no one way to solve it either. Imagine grace under pressure!
This gives crisis managers one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Their job means getting grips with unpredictable and grave situations for a job every day. Not to mention, extreme time pressure and close public scrutiny. Sounds like a superhero job to me!
You might be wondering what about disruptive and damaging events that have observable patterns? If seeing patterns allows us to predict things, can we prepare better for it then?
Yes! Such events are called emergencies.
Emergencies are similar to crises in that it calls for immediate action to prevent significant harm to people, their property, and their surroundings. Although there are a couple differences between the emergencies and crises, too.
As opposed to a crisis, there are particular strategies to deal with emergencies. While it’s hard to pinpoint what, when, and where a crisis might take place, emergencies can be anticipated with proper preparation because of its reoccurrence. The more it happens, the better prepared you get!
We know how fire can cause destruction and the small time window for saving lives. As a result, we have standard operating procedures for firefighters and emergency medical services.
Having a fashion emergency? No worries! Keep calm. There is a known and proven way to solve it, too. Maybe choose another one from outfits A to Z.
Crises are usually confined to a select and small population. Emergencies, although localized, have a broader scope and wider impact. Responding to it typically requires more people and more resources.
Emergency managers work hard to ensure we are able to deliver an effective and coordinated response during emergency situations. They provide assistance and relief to those who urgently need it, and control dangerous situations from spiralling out.
A Big Problem
Now what could happen if a crisis is neglected or if an emergency is mismanaged? Well, that spells D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R!
The most glaring difference of a disaster from a crisis and emergency is the size (magnitude) and extent (degree) of its negative effects.
Think large-scale and long-term human, material, political, economic, and environmental impacts. What a mouthful! Disasters do not discriminate, and so it presents a problem with many heads and faces. It can seriously mess up the essential functions of a whole society.
When a big earthquake hits a major city, it may result in substantial harm to people, their property, and their surroundings. It can also affect block access to roads and bridges, and cripple communication and power lines. Just those two things alone can bring social, government, and business activities to a halt for quite some time. A disaster!
In times of disaster, additional support from regional and national level stakeholders for local communities may also be needed. Even international help may be required in some cases.
Another key difference of a disaster from crisis and emergency is its tendency to develop from a series of events. Sure, it may occur suddenly. But disasters are, by and large, a combination of existing problems getting out of hand. It builds up from one event to another.
Let’s take a look at our everyday condition. Inequality and poverty force people to live and work in unsafe places and conditions like low-lying coastal areas. This increases their exposure to a hazard (e.g. tsunami) because they are within its reach.
With limited means and resources to withstand a disaster, these people become more and more vulnerable to the next one. It can also affect their livelihoods and other opportunities such as access to education and social services. All of these negative effects link up with each other and leave them more marginalized and susceptible.
Disaster managers play a crucial role in these situations. They come up with holistic and inclusive approaches to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these disruptive and destructive events. Even before it starts.
Which is Which Then?
There will always be diverging points of view on a crisis, emergencies, and disasters. And so we can expect that people will continue to interchange these terms every now and then.
This is a practical challenge with real-world consequences. Now that you know the differences among the three situations, reflect on it! Managing crisis, emergencies and disasters requires teamwork. We can only cooperate if we are on the same page.
Developing terms and using it accurately are important in any area of study or field of practice because it helps us become aware of a problem. After all, we cannot improve the way we communicate and work with each other if we can’t reach a common understanding. Good thing, you know better now.
Up next: What happens if the impacts of a disaster overwhelm the coping capacity of the affected population? In the next article, we will look into humanitarian action – what it is, how it works and why it is needed.
Want to learn more about Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM)? Thinking of starting a career in Humanitarian Affairs? Or are you seeking personal development in this field? The General Academic Strand (GAS) strand offers Disaster Readiness and Risk Reduction as a core subject for Senior High School students.
Al-Dahash, H., Thayaparan, M., Kulatunga, U. “Understanding the terminologies: Disaster, Crisis and Emergency”. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ARCOM Conference, 5-7 September 2016, vol. 2, pp. 1191-1200.
Coppola, D. “The Management of Disasters”. Introduction to International Disaster Management. 3rd ed., Butterworth-Heinemann, 2015, pp. 1-29.
Alexander, D. “The Plan in Practice: Emergency Management”. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, 2002, pp. 134-188.
Pursiainen, C. “Introduction”. The Crisis Management Cycle. 1st ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 1-8.
UNDRR. Understanding Disaster Risk. 12 November 2015: https://www.preventionweb.net/risk