DEME TIG Week: Disaster, Emergency, and Crisis Definitions by Phung Pham

Greetings!  My name is Phung Pham and I am currently serving as the Chair of the Disaster and Emergency Management Evaluation (DEME) TIG.  You may have heard and seen the words disaster, emergency, and crisis a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and even before that.  The definitions of these words come from a variety of sources, ranging from the journalistic to the social scientific, and are continually evolving in meaning. In this post, I share some of what I have found useful in framing my evaluation and research. 


  • “Disasters are relatively sudden occasions when, because of perceived threats, the routines of collective social units are seriously disrupted and when unplanned courses of action have to be undertaken to cope with the crisis.  The notion of ‘relatively sudden occasions’ indicates that disasters have unexpected life histories that can be designated in social space and time.  Disasters involve the perceptions of dangers and risks to valued social objects, especially people and property.”  (Reference: encyclopedia article in 2000 by the late Enrico L. Quarantelli, American sociologist and pioneer of disaster research)
  • Disasters may be divided into natural hazards (such as earthquakes, floods, wildfires, tsunamis, and hurricanes/cyclones/typhoons), technological hazards (such as dam failures and chemical spills), and natech disasters that result from the combination of natural and technological hazards (for example, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster triggered by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami).    


  • An imminent or actual threat to human life.  (Reference: essay in 1979 by the late Peter Rosen, American physician and pioneer of emergency medicine)
  • Because emergencies threaten human life, preparedness to the extent possible and timely response and mitigation are necessary, particularly during public health emergencies due to infectious diseases. 


  • An actual or perceived disruption to an entire social system, such as a family, organization, province, nation, etc.  (Reference: conceptual paper in 1990 by Thierry C. Pauchant and Ian I. Mitroff)
  • A crisis may have a sudden or slow onset, may evolve rapidly or slowly, and have a time-limited or prolonged duration.  Additionally, a crisis—such as that of a humanitarian nature—may involve issues of cybersecurity

Lessons Learned:  

Disasters, emergencies, and crises can and do overlap.  That is why one person’s crisis may be another person’s emergency, while both persons are experiencing the same disaster.  That is also why the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and other super wicked problems of the present times are variously described as disasters, emergencies, and crises.  To unpack what these problems mean to different people, we need to pay attention to the words being used and the meanings that those words hold.  After all, words can profoundly shape our understanding of world and nudge us into either reactive or proactive behaviors.  Paying attention to words in evaluation and research involves checking assumptions, taking multiple perspectives into consideration, and applying other skills of critical and evaluative thinking.   

Rad Resources:

  • The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) provides many examples of disasters and tips on how to prepare for them. 
  • The Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado at Boulder offers many informational resources and educational opportunities.    
  • If you would like to learn about disaster risk reduction, please check out the Sendai Framework.  Please also check out the Words into Action guidelines published by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). 
  • The United Nations’ International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) maintains a database of evaluation reports about emergencies and crises affecting children. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Disaster and Emergency Management Evaluation (DEME) Topical Interest Group (TIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our DEME TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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