When is a Disaster Considered a Disaster?

It’s kind of like the old question; ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ A disaster isn’t a disaster if there’s no measureable impact. No impact to people’s perception of the situation. No impact to people’s lives. If there is a large fire but there is no people or property (facilities, IT equipment etc.) or processes involved – either by fighting the fire or being impacted by the fire – is it still a disaster? There are no fire fighters and no burning buildings, which have no people being impacted so is it still a fire worth tracking and determining the impact and disaster level? No, because there is no measureable impact.
There will be arguments that state yes, it is a disaster because of the damage it can still cause (i.e. the environment) but if no one is involved how do you know it’s a disaster? There’s nothing that tells you it’s a disaster; nothing to point towards to say ‘this’ is the reason for the fire being a disaster because when the large fire is discovered it’s impact isn’t known…yet
A disaster must have some level of measurable impact. Something that can be ‘seen’ and ‘felt’ by people before it can be classified as a real disaster – and it has to impact people, otherwise it may just be an incident or an event of note. A fire in the middle of nowhere can still be a disaster, but if no one is there to see it, fight it or be impacted by it, it’s not classified as a real disaster because there’s nothing to measure as an impact.
For a disaster to be a disaster – in the eyes of people, media and the public in general – there has to be an impact to;
• People;
• Communities & Community Infrastructure;
• Service interruptions;
• Resources;
• Facilities;
• Technology (including those that impact services and processes);
• Suppliers;
• Vendors;
• Partners;
• Finances;
• Responders…and more.

If there is no measurable impact to any of the above, it’s not a disaster or a situation worth reporting on, it may just be an incident or Business As Usual (BAU) occurrence for which response mechanisms have already been developed to address. A means of addressing the situation before it escalates out of immediate control to become a disaster. Or even, the means to respond to the non-event when the non-event escalates and does begin to have an impact. Staying with the fire example, a forest fire may be a bad situation but not a disaster until it continues out of control and begins to threaten communities. Then what started as a non-event or non-disaster suddenly becomes a disaster.
The argument can be made that anything that impacts another is a disaster. A forest fire is a disaster because it destroys property, animal life and the natural resources it envelopes. But again, if there is no one to fight the fire – or even plan to fight the fire and maybe even to see the fire – is there a real disaster when no one is involved? If people are not involved with the situation by either resolving or addressing it or being impacted by it, it’s not a disaster. It’s just a situation that may or may not be in the headlines and will quickly be forgotten.

© StoneRoad 2014
A.Alex Fullick has over 17yrs experience working in Business Continuity and is the author of numerous books, including “Heads in the Sand” and “BIA: Building the Foundation for a Strong Business Continuity Program.”

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