The Language of Disasters and Incidents
Disasters, Hazards, and Incidents
Before dawn on the 17th of January 1994, an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale struck the greater Los Angeles area. The Northridge Earthquake left more than 70 persons dead and injured thousands more. It collapsed buildings, caused outages in water and power systems, ruptured oil and water pipelines, disrupted communications, and started a number of fires. Until 2005 this earthquake was the costliest natural disaster in American history.
Legal practitioners may refer to the Northridge Earthquake as an act of God because it was outside human control, but emergency responders apply their own language to events like this. Defining these terms and seeing their relationship is key to understanding the language of disaster response. Figure 1-1 depicts the relationship among various terms used to describe events addressed by the Stafford Act and the National Response Plan (NRP).
Each of these terms comes from two sources, one dating from before 9/11 and the other after 9/11. The older terms in the Stafford Act (major disaster, natural disaster, and domestic disaster) are more familiar to the layman, while the newer ones in the NRP (incident, catastrophic incident, and incident of national significance) are elements of the more specialized vocabulary of emergency responders. Both older and newer terms are used, and the staff officer should understand how to use all of them.
Disasters and Hazards
Where the Stafford Act uses the term disasters; the NRP uses hazards. A disaster differs from a hazard in the sense that it has already occurred and caused significant damage, while a hazard, as defined by the NRP, is simply something that is potentially dangerous or harmful, often the root cause of an unwanted outcome. The Northridge Earthquake was a disaster, while earthquakes in general are hazards. All disasters or hazards fall into two general categories (natural or manmade) and most fall into one of a number of sub-categories.
The Stafford Act Declarations
The Stafford Act commits federal resources to responding to damaging, life-threatening disasters when state and local efforts cannot handle them. The federal government reacts to formal state requests for assistance in three principal ways, the first two requiring a Presidential declaration:
1) Major disaster declaration: In response to a request from the governor of a state, the President makes this declaration, thus opening the way to a large federal commitment of resources, including the potential deployment of Department of Defense (DOD) personnel and resources. The frequency of major disasters and the costs to the federal government are on the rise because of:
The result of these changing circumstances is one disaster causes additional disasters. For example, an earthquake may rupture gas lines, causing fires and chemical spills.
Facts about major disaster declarations, FY00-05:
2) Emergency declaration: On the request of a governor, the Presidential declaration authorizes a lesser federal commitment, limited to $5 million.
Facts about emergency declarations, FY00-05:
3) Fire management assistance declaration: Authorizes the use of federal funds to mitigate, manage, and control fires burning on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands. On the request of a governor, the regional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director makes the declaration, not the President.
Facts about fire management assistance, FY00-05
FEMA posts basic information about each of the individual declarations of major disasters, emergencies, and fires on its Website at the following URL: http://www.fema.gov/library/drcys.shtm. Figure 1-2 shows the relationship between the severity of an event and the level of response to the event.
Facts about Declarations:
From the Stafford Act to the NRP
The Stafford Act dates from a time when there was little expectation of a terrorist attack. Since 1988 only four terrorist attacks have merited major disaster declarations, but the four were of such magnitude and impact they re-shaped the national approach to all disasters.
After the World Trade Center explosion and the Oklahoma City Federal Courthouse bombing in the 1990s, new terminology not found in the Stafford Act began to emerge relating to the tools at the disposal of terrorists.
In the new terminology, terrorists employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to cause death, destruction, and fear. Figure 1-3 shows the types of weapons that are considered weapons of mass destruction. Destruction encompasses the entire range from physical wreckage and loss of life to damage to the society, economy, national security, and national well-being. The DOD has used a general definition of WMD: Weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people. The DOD also uses the term chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosives (CBRNE or CBRN-E) to encompass the full range of WMD. The NRP uses a precise definition of WMD that is spelled out in U.S. laws.
Incidents in the NRP
The NRP employs a new term, incident, intended to be broader and more inclusive than the terms disaster and emergency. An incident is an occurrence or event, natural or human-caused, that requires an emergency response to protect life or property. Figure 4-1 shows the relationship between various types of incidents discussed in the NRP.
Facts about incidents:
Catastrophic incidents are comparable to Presidentially-declared major disasters. These terms both suggest natural and manmade events that do significant harm and which overwhelm the response capabilities of local and state governments. The definition of catastrophic incident differs from that of major disaster only in that it fits more neatly within the framework of the Global War on Terrorism.
Facts about catastrophic incidents:
The NRP includes a Catastrophic Incident Annex (NRP-CIA). Only the Secretary of Homeland Security or designee can implement this annex.
Incident of national significance is a term that is intended to cover the full range of federal responses to incidents. It is an actual or potential high-impact event that requires a coordinated and effective response by and appropriate combination of Federal, State, local, tribal, nongovernmental, and/or private-sector entities in order to save lives and minimize damage, and provide the basis for long-term community recovery and mitigation activities. Incidents of national significance include all Presidentially-declared emergencies or major disasters, all catastrophic incidents, and all national security special events (potential targets for terrorists, such as the Presidential Inauguration). The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate as such an incident of national significance.
Facts about incidents of national significance:
Disaster Response and Incident Management
Responses to terrorist WMD attacks differ from responses to natural disasters. First responders need to deal with the effects of WMD, which may be different from effects of natural disasters. At the same time, the responders may have to deal with further terrorist attack and with bringing the terrorists to justice. Consequence management and crisis management emerged to describe the manner in which to handle the two needed responses.
The DOD definition of consequence management is problematic, given that it encompasses both natural and manmade disasters, not just terrorist actions. At the same time, the NRP uses the terms consequences and effects interchangeably when considering the outcomes for both natural disasters and manmade disasters, including those caused by terrorists. If the staff officer encounters the term consequence management, he should ask for a definition.
The NRP replaces consequence management and crisis management as separate functions with a single term, incident management. Incident management aims to remove the boundaries between consequence management and crisis management. The goal of incident management is to orchestrate the prevention of, preparedness for, response to, and recovery from terrorism, major natural disasters, and other major emergencies.
This handbook focuses on the response phase when the DOD is most actively engaged.
This handbook will use the term "disaster response" when discussing DOD participation in incident management for a number of reasons:
The United States, the Homeland
The Northridge Earthquake was a domestic disaster, meaning that it took place within the United States. When the Stafford Act and the NRP use the term United States, they mean more than just the 50 states. The United States, which we can also call the Homeland, consists of the following together with its coastal zone and air space:
In terms of the NRP and disaster response, the District of Columbia, the non-state possessions, and the freely associated states, are all states, with the same rights and responsibilities accorded to each of the fifty states. The state in this broad sense is the basic geographic unit in disaster response. The states chief executive, usually in the person of the governor, is the one who must make the case for and request a federal response in case of a disaster.
Within each state, local chief executive officers (for example, mayors and county commissioners) and tribal chief executive officers must request state and, if necessary, federal disaster assistance through the governor. The local and tribal officers rely on their own law enforcement, firefighting, and other resources to make the first response to an incident. These first responders always take the initial action, whether the incident is a routine, small-scale emergency or a major disaster that will eventually require the presence of the DOD.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012