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Handbook 11-07
December 2010

Chapter 1

The Language of Disasters and Incidents

Words have meaning and power, and as such, it is important to understand the precise meanings of terms used in conversation and writing. This is especially true when people are dealing with situations that are vague, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and possibly lethal.

The language of disasters and incidents is different from the military terminology we use day-to-day. When a unit is mobilized to assist with a domestic operation, it is extremely important to understand the language used by first responders and incident commanders. This chapter will introduce you to this language by identifying and explaining key terminology.

Disasters, Hazards, and Incidents

The terms disaster, hazard, and incident reached their current definitions through two sources, one dating from before 9/11 and the other after 9/11. The older terms in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act - major disaster, natural disaster, and domestic disaster - are more familiar to laymen, while the newer ones in the National Response Framework (NRF) - incident or catastrophic incident - 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.

Major disaster is defined by Title 42 U.S. Code Section 5122(2) as follows:

Any natural catastrophe (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought) or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion, in any part of the United States, which in the determination of the President causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under this Act to supplement the efforts and available resources of States, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby.

Emergency is defined by The Stafford Act as follows:

Any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, Federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.

Incident is defined by Joint Publication 3-28, Civil Support, as follows:

An occurrence, caused by either human action or natural phenomena, that requires action to prevent or minimize loss of life or damage to property and/or natural resources.

A disaster has already occurred and caused significant damage, while a hazard, as defined by the NRF, 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 man-made) and most fall into one of a number of subcategories.


Natural (Geological) Events

  • Avalanche
  • Landslide, rockslide, mudslide
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Earthquake
  • Subsidence

Hydro-Meteorological Events

  • Drought
  • Hurricane
  • Tornado
  • Typhoon
  • Winter snow or ice storm
  • Flood
  • Severe storm
  • Tropical storm
  • Tsunami or tidal wave
  • Wildfire (accidental)

Other Natural Events

  • Wildfires (lightning-caused)

Table 1-1a. Types of natural disasters and hazards


Accidental/Unintentional Events

  • Aircraft crash
  • Nuclear accident
  • Train derailment
  • Hazardous materials spill
  • Oil spill
  • Wildfire (accidental)

Intentional/Deliberate Events


  • Arson



  • Biological attack
  • Explosives attack
  • Nuclear attack
  • Chemical attack
  • Hijacking
  • Radiological attack

Table 1-1b. Types of man-made disasters and hazards

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, 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 rsise because of:

a. Increasing population density.

b. Increasing settlement in high-risk areas.

c. Increasing technological risks. (Hazardous substances are an example.)

Because of these increasing circumstances, one disaster causes additional disasters. For example, an earthquake may rupture gas lines, causing fires and chemical spills.

2. Emergency declaration: At the request of a governor, this presidential declaration authorizes a lesser federal commitment, limited to $5 million.

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. At the request of a governor, the regional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director makes the declaration, not the president.

Figure 1-1 shows presidential disaster declarations, January 2000 through March 2007.

Graphic showing diagram of shows presidential disaster declarations, January 2000 through March 2007

Figure 1-1

FEMA posts basic information about each of the individual declarations of major disasters, emergencies, and fires on its website at "". Figure 1-2 shows the relationship between the severity of an event and the level of response to the event.

Graphic showing the Stafford Act relationship between the severity of an event and the level of response to the event

Figure 1-2. Severity of events

Facts about declarations:

  • With a few exceptions, states must take the initiative in requesting declarations.
  • Each affected state has a separate declaration, even when more than one state is impacted by the same disaster, emergency, or fire.
  • FEMA assigns a sequential number to each major disaster or emergency, followed by the initials DR for disaster or EM for emergency.
  • A small portion of declared emergencies escalate, requiring a subsequent major disaster declaration (in the case of Hurricane Katrina, for example).

From the Stafford Act to the National Response Framework

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 reshaped the national approach to all disasters.

  • February 1993, FEMA-984-DR, New York World Trade Center explosion.
  • April 1995, FEMA-1048-DR, Oklahoma City explosion at the federal building.
  • September 2001, FEMA-1391-DR, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
  • September 2001, FEMA-1392-DR, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

After the World Trade Center explosion and the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in the 1990s, new terminology not found in the Stafford Act began to emerge relating to tools at the disposal of terrorists.

In the new terminology, terrorists employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to cause death, destruction, and fear. Destruction encompasses 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 NRF uses a precise definition of WMD that is spelled out in U.S. laws. Title 18, U.S. Code, paragraph 2332a defines WMD as:

  • Any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas, bomb, grenade, or rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces, or missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce, or mine or similar device.
  • Any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury during the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors.
  • Any weapon involving a disease organism.
  • Any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.

Incidents in the NRF

The NRF employs a new term, incident, which is 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."

Facts about incidents:

  • They number tens of thousands each year.
  • Most are handled solely by local first responders.
  • A small portion are of sufficient magnitude to require federal assistance, including events of great magnitude:
    • Catastrophic incidents.
    • Incidents of national significance.

Catastrophic incidents are comparable to presidentially declared major disasters. The terms suggest natural and man-made events that do significant harm and 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 war against terrorism.

Facts about catastrophic incidents

The NRF includes a Catastrophic Incident Annex (NRF-CIA). Only the secretary of Homeland Security or his designee can implement this annex. Incidents covered under the annex are "any natural or man-made incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions."

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 attacks and with bringing the terrorists to justice. Consequence management and crisis management emerged to describe the manner in which to handle the needed responses.

Consequence management and crisis management

The requirements for consequence management and crisis management are combined in the NRF. The DOD definition of consequence management is problematic, given that it encompasses both natural and man-made disasters and does not focus exclusively on terrorist actions. At the same time, the NRF uses the terms "consequences" and "effects" interchangeably when considering the outcomes for both natural disasters and man-made disasters, including those caused by terrorists. If the staff officer encounters the term consequence management, he should ask for a definition.

Incident management

The NRF 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." Incident management includes prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery phases.

Disaster response

This handbook will use the term "disaster response" when discussing DOD participation in incident management for a number of reasons:

  • Major disaster, which encompasses both natural and man-made catastrophes, including those caused by terrorists using WMD, offers the clearest definition for those instances in which states or other federal agencies will need the help of the DOD.
  • So long as the Stafford Act remains the principal source of federal disaster response funding, the alternative terms (incident or catastrophic incident) are of lesser importance. The NRF has not replaced the term major disaster.
  • Except for work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the DOD is involved in the response phase of incident management, not in prevention, preparedness, or recovery.
  • Incident management has superseded the terms consequence management and crisis management, which have had a tendency to muddy the waters of clarity through varied usage in the past. Regardless of the term, the DOD does not manage the response; it only executes assigned missions.
  • Disaster response or disaster relief linger in the language of the layman, while the term incident management has a narrow usage.

The United States: the Homeland

Hurricane Katrina was a domestic disaster, meaning that it took place within the United States. When the Stafford Act and the NRF 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 contiguous coastal zone and air space:

  • The 50 states and the District of Columbia
  • Nonstate possessions (regarded as states)
    • Insular areas in the Caribbean:
      • Puerto Rico
      • Virgin Islands
    • Insular areas in the Pacific Ocean
      • American Samoa
      • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
      • Guam
  • Freely associated states (not mentioned in the Stafford Act).
    • Insular areas in the Pacific Ocean
      • Federated States of Micronesia
      • Republic of the Marshall Islands

In terms of the NRF and disaster response, the District of Columbia, the nonstate possessions, and the freely associated states are states with the same rights and responsibilities accorded to the 50 states. The state in this broad sense is the basic geographic unit in disaster response. The state's chief executive, usually the governor, must make the case for and request a federal response to 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. The 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.

Mutual aid

Disasters and emergencies can quickly exhaust or overwhelm the resources of a single jurisdiction, whether at the state or local level. Two primary types of mutual aid, intrastate and interstate, exist.

Throughout the United States, numerous regional assistance compacts exist and governors can apply to them for immediate help if state resources are exhausted. Nationally, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) exists to coordinate the arrival of help so that inappropriate and unlicensed assistance is prevented. EMAC is approved by Congress and administered by the states.

During a disaster, governors have at their disposal a crucial state resource in the National Guard. To deploy the National Guard effectively, governors need to understand the role the Guard plays in their emergency response systems and to recognize other military assets that are available through the DOD. Military assistance can come in several varieties:

  • Under state active duty and Title 32 authority, the governor is in command and control of the National Guard, and Posse Comitatus restrictions (such as those that would prohibit the use of military police to maintain law and order) do not apply.
  • Under Title 10 authority, the president may federalize and deploy all or part of the state's National Guard, and Posse Comitatus restrictions do apply.
  • Federalizing the National Guard may reduce costs for a state, but governors lose control of Guard forces when they are deployed under Title 10.
  • Federal funding for some National Guard costs related to homeland defense activities is available if the secretary of Defense determines a National Guard component is necessary and appropriate.
  • Several strategies exist to integrate military forces with those of the state, including the "dual status command" in which one commander can lead both National Guard forces deployed under Title 10 and those deployed under Title 32.

Governors' Powers

Governors of states are absolutely responsible for everything that happens (and fails to happen) within the borders of their states during a disaster. Reflecting their leading role in disaster response, governors are granted emergency powers to fulfill their responsibilities in extraordinary circumstances. These powers are established legislatively and vary from state to state. The powers generally include:

  • Declaring an emergency.
  • Suspending state regulations and statutes.
  • Ordering evacuations.
  • Commandeering the use of private property.
  • Controlling access to the disaster sites.
  • Imposing a curfew.
  • Rationing supplies such as food, water, and fuel.
  • Implementing specific public health response measures.
  • Authorizing emergency funds without prior legislative consent.
  • Calling upon other states for mutual assistance through EMAC.
  • Calling upon the federal government for assistance when state resources are exhausted.
  • Mobilizing the National Guard.


Field Manual 3-28, Civil Support Operations (Final draft version 6.2), Department of the Army, 16 January 2010.

Joint Publication 3-28, Civil Support, Department of Defense, 14 September 2007.

Lee, Erin; Logan, Christopher; Mitchell, Jeffrey; and Trella, Joe A Governor's Guide to Homeland Security, National Governor's Association Center for Best Practices, January 2007.

National Response Framework, Department of Homeland Security, January 2008.

National Incident Management System, Department of Homeland Security, December 2008.

National Infrastructure Protection Plan, Department of Homeland Security, 2009.

Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support, Department of Defense, June 2005.



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