How Do Incidents and Crises Differ?

And Why is That Important?

Characteristics of Incidents and Crisis Compared




Major Incident


An adverse event that might cause disruption, loss or an emergency, but which does not meet the organisation(s)' criteria for, or definition of, a crisis.

(BS 11200:2014:2)


An event or situation, with a range of serious consequences, which requires special arrangements to be implemented by one or more emergency responder agencies.

(JESIP Joint Doctrine, 2016)


An abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organisation's strategic objectives, reputation or viability.

(BS 11200:2014:2)


Criteria Incidents Crises



  • Incidents are:
  • Generally foreseeable
  • Amendable to pre-planned response measures
  • Likely to have a 'play book'
  • However, the details of timing, nature, spread and implications could be complex and unique.



Crises tend to be:

  • Unique
  • Rare
  • Unforeseeable
They can also be the product of poorly managed events, or combinations of such events.
They can create exceptional challenges that are not usually amenable to prescriptive or pre-planned responses.


There is no 'play book'. They may require highly creative and occasionally high risk responses.
Sometimes this might include creative rule-breaking.



How they present

Incidents can be:

  • No-notice or short notice disruptive events
  • Relatively slow to develop - the 'rising tide' character
  • The product of a gradual systemic failure
  • The result of loss of control of some process, activity or defence mechanism


Crises can present in the same sort of ways as incidents.
But, they can also be triggered by the consequences of, or the perception of, poor management of an incident.

Crises can also emerge when events expose what were latent problems within an organisation, reflecting on aspects of its performance, culture or leadership.


Incidents, event major ones, do not always require strategic leadership. They tend to escalate from bottom to top.

Strategic leaders always need to take a watching interest and be informed. But, if they are assured that the incident is being managed well, they may not need to become directly or personally involved. 

Crises are inherently strategic.
They will directly involve the most senior leaders and probably dominate their diaries and agenda.
They do this because they tend to be a direct challenge to the organisation's reputation, brand and core values (and share value in the case of commercial organisations).

Crises may directly affect the organisation's stability and future prospects.
A sufficiently severe crisis which is not well managed can even destroy even large organisations.


Incident response usually spans a short time frame of activity, although the recovery may take much longer.

Crises might require a response that will run over longer periods of time.


Incidents are adverse event that are reasonably well understood and are therefore amendable to a predefined response.

They might be challenging, but most of their impacts can be foreseen and modelled with a fair degree of confidence.

Due to their strategic nature, crises can disrupt or affect the entire organisation and transcend organisational, geographical and sectoral boundaries.

Crises tend to be complex and inherently uncertain. Critical decisions must be made with incomplete and ambiguous information. The spread of impacts is difficult to assess and appreciate.

Situational Awareness

In information management terms the most important challenge is getting information and collating it.

In information management terms getting and collating information will be difficult but the biggest challenge may be in assessing it and understanding its full, strategic implications.

Media Scrutiny

Effective incident management generally attracts positive and supportive media attention.

This support can be lost; it tends to last as long as the incident is seen to be well managed and the right things are being done. If it is lost the media's approach is likely to become more investigative and adversarial.

This may be a factor in how an incident might escalate into a crisis, since it probably reflects or stimulates a failure in public confidence.

In general, crises tend to be associated with a less supportive and positive approach by the media.

This can be softened and moderated, primarily by adept public communications.

However, if an organisation or its leadership is seen to be part of the case of the crisis, media scrutiny can quickly become relentless, hostile and unforgiving.

Plans, Arrangements and Procedures

Incidents can often be resolved by applying appropriate, predefined procedures and plans to intercept adverse events, mitigate their impacts and recover to normal operations.
Resourcing is often an issue, but incident responses are likely to have been planned and resource requirements fairly well understood in advance.

Crises, through a combination of their novelty, inherent uncertainty, potential scale and duration are rarely resolvable through the application of predefined procedures and plans.
They need flexible, creative, strategic and sustained solutions that reflect and cohere with organisation's core values and brand identity.

Instead of specific crisis management plans, organisations tend to have a set of generic crisis management capabilities to mobilise, organise and equip a response.


Our conclusion is that incidents (whether 'major' or not) and crises are different things. This is not just a question of scale; there is no point at which an incident becomes a crisis simply because it has reached a given size or extent.  If an incident does become, or gives rise to, a crisis - it will be because something has fundamentally changed or gone wrong.
The two phenomena are not, therefore, differentiated by degree. They are differentiated by type and the difference is material. Since they differ fundamentally, it follows that separate and different (but complementary) response arrangements are needed. That is the core message of the above discussion.