How a Crisis Differs from an Emergency


We often use the terms crisis and emergency interchangeably. But a distinction is useful in project work.

Although we often use the terms crisis and emergency interchangeably in casual conversation, their meanings are not identical. In this discussion, I'd like to draw a useful distinction between them, based on their dictionary definitions:

  • A crisis is "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with a distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome." (Merriam-Webster)
  • An emergency is "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action." (Merriam-Webster)

The two elements that distinguish crisis from emergency are immediacy and the need for decisive change. An emergency is acute — the undesirable outcome is here, right now. Immediate action is required. A crisis may also call for action, but the purpose of the action is to prevent a possible outcome. Moreover the action called for in a crisis is likely to be one that changes in a fundamental way the system that's in crisis. In emergencies, on the other hand, while the action taken does address the acute condition, it isn't intended to alter the system itself.

For example, in 1998, we lived in the context of the Year 2000 software crisis, which (for most) did not develop into an emergency.

The really nasty situations are those that are both crises and emergencies.

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