Author Bio ▼

Claire is Director of Clarity Safety Solutions Ltd., an Oban-based health and safety consultancy. She has more than 17 years of health and safety experience advising organisations and is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, an OSHCR registered consultant, and an IFE registered life safety assessor. Since attempting to leave the rat race in 2008, and moving to the West Coast of Scotland, Claire has written hundreds of articles, reports, policies, papers, newsletters, and training courses. Nevertheless, she continues to help clients directly with their health, safety, and fire safety arrangements both within the UK and abroad.
January 23, 2014

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When Is an Incident a Crisis?

Did you ever wonder what the difference was between an incident and a crisis? If so, you’ll find a new British Standard due out next year a great help!

OK, so not many of us have ever considered this dilemma. But it was, I felt, one of the most interesting sections of the draft standard, BS11200.

This document, “Crisis Management — Guidance and Good Practice,” is available for comment until January 10 2014. It’s been prepared by Technical Committee SSM/1 Societal Security Management. Once published, it will replace PAS200:2011, which covers similar material.

If you want to have a look at it, you’ll need to get in quickly. Register with BSi to read and comment on drafts. (Click here to go to the document.) If you do have the chance to do this, I’d recommend also clicking on the comments boxes, because these reveal the comments made by others who have reviewed the document. There are some insightful points made.

What’s a crisis?

The definition given for a crisis, is, “an abnormal and unstable situation that threatens an organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability.” The comments made by experts in the field suggest some variations and additions to this, so it may change. The elements which may yet be added concern the need for preparation for possible crises, the time critical nature for action and the investment of management resources in response.

What does the standard cover?
The purpose of the document is to set out, “the principles and good practice for the provision of a crisis management response, delivered by the top management of any organization of any size in the public or private sector.”

The overall range of content is similar to PAS200, but seems more focused. It begins with the usual preamble of: foreword, introduction, scope, and terms and definitions. It ends as, you’d expect, with a bibliography. In between there are the following sections:

  • Crisis management: core concepts, principles and developing a capability
  • Building a crisis management capability
  • Crisis leadership
  • Strategic crisis decision-making
  • Crisis communications
  • Training, exercising and learning from crises

There’s a little too much management speak within a few sections, but this is by no means the finished product. The clever people leaving comments have suggested some very good improvements.

So how does a crisis differ from an incident?
The suggestion is that incidents are more predictable and can be dealt with through standard pre-prepared and well-rehearsed responses. Crises however, are “inherently uncertain,” and such off the peg solutions may be counterproductive.

For example, if a sequence of incidents occurs simultaneously, it may develop into a crisis if various elements of planned response are not be deliverable, or it may create additional hazards. Crises therefore require more flexible and creative responses. They require sustained input at a strategic level. Those leading the response need a good grounding in their organisations’ values.

Crises may arise from incidents which have not been contained either in the real world, or in the eyes of the media. As the guidance suggests, a crisis can be created from an incident through inaccurate factual reporting. Incidents have serious, but lesser impacts. Once an incident is contained, the aim is to return to normal operating conditions whilst minimising financial, reputational, and other forms of damage.

Crises are events which have strategic implications, and might have profound reputational consequences. They may expose latent weaknesses which otherwise would not have been laid bare.

Poor decisions during a crisis can be terminal for the organization, yet often there is very little time to make and implement good decisions, with time-frames often being shortened by external pressures form regulators, the media, etc.

How does this help?

I think the authors are correct when they say that it’s important to understand the difference between an incident and a crisis. It’s a hard one to grasp, but if you think of the major tragedies of our time, they are distinguished from incidents by the inability of pre-planned responses to cope.

Good crisis management then clearly needs a structured approach which brings in the right decision makers at the right time and shifts from a rules-and-regulations reaction to a flexible and creative response. Food for thought.

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January 29, 2014 2:09 pm

Media play a very important role in transforming an incident into a crisis situation. Apart from the operational definition of crisis, irresponsible and careless coverage of an incident by the media can create panic among the masses and turn a normal incident into a crisis. Sensationalism and over coverage should be checked therefore.

January 29, 2014 2:09 pm

Besides inaccurate factual reporting, crises often spring out of wrong or under assessment of an incident by the concerned authorities. Response to any incident depends upon the realization of the possible damage and repercussions. Accurate understanding of the scope of an incident will definitely result in appropriate response which will keep the damage go out of proportions.