Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 12, 2010

Homeland security lexicon: hazards, incidents, and disasters, oh my!

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 12, 2010

We presume to manage emergencies, declare disasters, mitigate hazards, respond to incidents, and recover from catastrophes.  These are homeland security terms-of-art.  What do we mean?  Do we share a sense of meaning?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a branch of the national government that manages emergencies.  Some other day we may consider what “manage” means.  But today, what is meant by emergency?

The Stafford Act offers that an emergency is, “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.”   An emergency is what the President says it is.  Well, okay…

The same legislation tells us a (major) disaster is, “any natural catastrophe… 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 (the) act to supplement the efforts and available resources or states, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby.”

So a disaster is a catastrophe?  Regular readers of this blog know I am inclined to split hairs on this question (see prior post defining catastrophe).  I am not the first to split hairs.  There are regulations that further define emergency and disaster threshholds.   But I am less interested in the legal or regulatory definition than in how these terms reflect, or not, a shared understanding across the homeland security community (and beyond).

Following 9/11 Congressional and White House staff noticed the imprecise, even circular, nature of these terms.  Whether their response clarified or further complicated is up for debate. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (2003) sets out,  “to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies, the United States Government shall establish a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management.”   HSPD 5 begat the National Response Plan (4MB) (2004) that, as far as I can tell,  introduced the term “incident of national significance.”


1375–1425; late ME < MF < ML incident-  (s. of incidens  a happening, n. use of prp. of L incidere  to befall), equiv. to L in- in-2 + -cid-  (comb. form of cad-  fall) + -ent- -ent; cf. cadence

We might say that an incident is something that falls out of cadence, out of step.  But it is also interesting that the middle Latin cadentia from cadere meant to fall as a dice falls.  Our English word accident shares the same derivation.  An incident, in its original meaning, is not just an event, but an unpredicted event. 

It was also in the years immediately after 9/11 that the term “all-hazards” began to emerge in legislation, policy, and speeches.  This was, at least, a rhetorical convenience to reduce the need to repeat the range of possible threats.  Some also saw the term as a way to encourage a capabilities-based rather than a threat-specific approach to homeland security thinking.   This strategic intent was never achieved.  The continuing preoccupation with terrorism even produced the awkward “man-made hazards” of some legislation.  Eventually hazards came to mean everything other than terrorism, as in the common usage: “terrorism and all-hazards”


1250–1300; ME hasard  < OF, perh. < Ar al-zahr the die, as the the uncertainty of the result in throwing a die.  Unpredictable harm.

So… we have a variety of hazards — including man-made hazards — that cause incidents: Unpredictable factors produce  unpredictable events.  Unless these happenings are quickly controlled they can become emergencies.  In other words, the unpredictable harm begins to emerge in an increasingly difficult form.


“unforeseen occurrence requiring immediate attention,” 1630s, from L. emergens , prp. of emergere  (see emerge).  (okay, I will) emerge 1560s, from M.Fr. emerger , from L. emergere  “rise out or up,” from ex-  “out” + mergere  “to dip, sink” (see merge). The notion is of rising from a liquid by virtue of buoyancy.

Depending on what unforeseen occurrence is rising up — as a black cloud from the ocean deep, so to speak — we may soon face a crisis.  A crisis, it seems to me, is when an incident moves from being of serious concern to a narrow set of people to a much larger set of people.  There is also something going on with the unforeseen happening that draws our attention and causes us to apply a much finer judgment to it.  We begin to distinguish this specific incident from other incidents and work with more diligence to explain the unforeseen happening.  When a sense-of-crisis emerges it is certainly a turning point… but the turn is not quite made.


c.1425, from Gk. krisis  “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein  “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei-  “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai  “to explain;” O.E. hriddel  “sieve;” L. cribrum  “sieve,” crimen  “judgment, crime,” cernere  (pp. cretus ) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar,  O.Welsh cruitr  “sieve;” M.Ir. crich  “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. A Ger. term for “mid-life crisis” is Torschlusspanik , lit. “shut-door-panic,” fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.

If the crisis is quickly resolved —  if the unforeseen happening is stopped, the emergence is contained, or if it is somehow explained away —  then our expected cadence is restored.  The crisis passes.  The turn is not made. What was not foreseen may now be  foreseen, mitigated, and better prevented.  The hazard, having been experienced, will be much more likely to be predicted and, thereby, be less hazardous.

But if the turning point is not successfully engaged, if the turn is actually made, then we face disaster.


 1580, from M.Fr. desastre  (1564), from It. disastro  “ill-starred,” from dis-  “away, without” + astro  “star, planet,” from L. astrum,  from Gk. astron  (see star). The sense is astrological, of a calamity blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet.

Being born under and remaining true to a particular star, identity, fate, genius… was what many ancients considered fundamental to living a good life.  Encountering a bad star or, worse yet, choosing the wrong guiding star was to choose a life without direction, without predictability, with no hope of happiness.  A disaster is the outcome of coming to a turning point (crisis) and choosing the wrong way.  In a disaster there is no sense of direction, no clear route away from harm, all is chaos.  Unless we are able to reclaim our true way, we are condemned to catastrophe.

I spent an hour this Saturday morning satisfying my own curiosity.  Since it is the weekend — and almost no one reads HLSwatch on the weekend — I thought it would not hurt to share.  Many thanks to the authors, editors, and webmasters at www.dictionary.com and to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2010 @ 11:44 am

Well evil stars aside, looks like a new version of HSPD-5 will be out by end of this week following Presidential address.

WH domestic crisis management in for a total revolution as President discovers “operations other than war” may have to be led by the Nation’s Chief Executive.

Hey how about the VP? He is tanned rested and ready and otherwise from nice visit to World Cup?

Is Biden an irrelvancy at this point in any critical WH ops? Or policy discussion? I guess only question is will Hillary consent to be on the ticket in 2012?

Haiti (also a Caribbean problem) will be back in news in big way by 4th of July as foreign governments repeal de facto the MONROE Doctrine. Again IMO.

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