Some Conceptual Tools for Understanding and

 Addressing Catastrophic Challenges

 As Well As Other Lesser Emergencies


By Paula D. Gordon



Three Complementary Ways of Looking at Emergencies


Three complementary ways of looking at emergencies are highlighted here.  These three tools can be helpful in emergency management and homeland security.  They are

·         a Typology of Emergencies, 

·         an All Hazards Emergency Management Cycle, and

·         an All Hazards Impact Scale.


These tools can serve as a framework for understanding emergencies and their impacts.  The tools can be helpful to emergency management planners, policy makers, and practitioners in developing and implementing action plans that address the widest possible range of emergencies and all phases of the emergency management cycle.   The tools may help those who have not previously comprehended the differences between catastrophes and lesser emergencies deepen their understanding concerning those differences and the implications of those differences for everything from preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, and continuity of operations to emergency management planning and training and education in general.  The tools can help in broadening perspectives.  They can help all involved envision possible scenarios that could unfold and help provide insight into how possible scenarios might best be addressed.  They can help provide insight into ways in which undesirable scenarios can be ameliorated or forestalled in the first place.  They can be helpful in suggesting ways in which desirable scenarios might be fostered and realized.


1) A Typology of Emergencies



                Table 1, the Typology of Emergencies was initially developed by the author in the early 1980s while serving for two years as a full time consultant with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  The Typology was initially developed as a way of illustrating for decision makers the need to exercise realistic expectations when considering worst case scenarios.   The Typology was developed in response to a perceived need to expand the thinking of persons in roles of responsibility to assess possible worst scenarios in far more realistic ways than had been the case in the past.



Table 1:




The Typology of Emergencies briefly characterizes emergencies of differing levels of severity through and including worst case catastrophes. The Typology can be especially helpful in highlighting a major problem that many of those engaged in emergency management have had:  Most emergency management planning address only the lower portion of the table and efforts to address the levels above the mid-point in the table have tended to be unrealistic and inadequate at best.  Most planning, indeed most preparedness efforts, do not address scenarios in which all of the major elements of the critical infrastructure are in a state of failure.  Most efforts do not address situations in which the major elements of the critical infrastructure are in a state of failure for days, weeks, or months or longer as was the case in Hurricane Katrina.  The result of focusing on emergencies that fall within the first parts of the Typology is that those in emergency management are largely blindsided when a true catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina has occurs.  To this day many do not seem to comprehend what sets Hurricane Katrina apart.  One result is that instead of recognizing the difficulties and sometimes impossibilities of responding “effectively” in the immediate aftermath of a true catastrophe, blame is meted out to key players who were all equally hindered in their efforts to respond.



2) An All Hazards Emergency Management Cycle


The second conceptual tool is way of depicting the emergency management cycle.  This particular graphic representation is adapted from a Counter Terrorism Strategic Model developed by Todd Stewart, Ph.D.

Table 2, an All Hazards Emergency Management Cycle, provides a way of looking at an all hazards emergency management cycle, a cycle that can be applied to emergencies of any of a universe of possible origins, emergencies that can impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, or millions of individuals.   


Table 2:  An All Hazards Emergency Management Cycle






It is imperative to ground emergency management efforts in an understanding of the significance of this cycle in that all parts of the cycle can be seen as being interrelated.  Efforts directed at any portion of the cycle are bound to have an impact on the other parts of the cycle.   From time to time, there are those in the policy making arena who show little or no understanding of the significance of the interrelated character of this cycle.  This can have dire consequences in that government efforts in emergency management may be structured in ways that are destined to create problems rather than to help address challenges as effectively as possible.


3. An All Hazards Impact Scale


Table 3, an All Hazards Impact Scale, constitutes the third conceptual tool.  This All Hazards Impact Scale is a conceptual tool of potential use by educators, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners.   (An earlier version of this scale was called the “Homeland Security Impact Scale.”  See “Improving Homeland Security and Critical Infrastructure Protection and Continuity” at    Either name is fitting if “homeland security” is seen here as encompassing the full range of emergencies, through and including catastrophes of natural origin.)

The All Hazards Impact Scale has been adapted from the Y2K Impact Scale, a survey instrument developed in 1998 by WDCY2K, a networking organization composed of members with interests in Y2K-related challenges.  The membership came from all parts of the public sector and private sectors, including government, business, non-profit organizations, and academia. (For additional background on WDCY2K, see Bruce F. Webster, The Homeland Security Survival Guide, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ, 1999.)




Table 3:   All Hazards Impact Scale


0 -- No real impact on national security, economic security, or personal security

1 -- Local impact in areas directly affected

2 -- Significant impact in some areas that were not directly affected

3 -- Significant market adjustment (20% + drop); some business and industries destabilized; some bankruptcies, including increasing number of personal bankruptcies and bankruptcies of small businesses, and waning of consumer confidence;

4 -- Economic slowdown spreads; rise in unemployment and underemployment; accompanied by possible isolated *disruptive incidents and acts, increase in hunger and homelessness

5 -- Cascading impacts including mild recession; isolated supply problems*; isolated infrastructure problems*; accompanied by possible increase in *disruptive incidents and acts, continuing societal impacts

6 -- Moderate to strong recession or increased market volatility; regional supply problems*; regional infrastructure problems*; accompanied by possible increase in disruptive incidents and acts, worsening societal impacts

7 -- Spreading supply problems* and infrastructure problems*; accompanied by possible increase in disruptive incidents and acts, worsening societal impacts, and major challenges posed to elected and non-elected public officials

8 -- Depression; increased supply problems*; elements of infrastructure crippled; accompanied by likely increase in disruptive incidents and acts; worsening societal impacts; and national and global markets severely impacted

9 -- Widespread supply problems*; infrastructure verging on collapse with both national and global consequences; worsening economic and societal impacts, accompanied by likely widespread disruptions

10 -- Possible unraveling of the social fabric, nationally and globally, jeopardizing the ability of governments to govern and keep the peace

* "Supply problems" and "infrastructure problems" may include food shortages; availability of potable water; degradation of water purity, water distribution and/or waste management; fuel/heating oil shortages, disruptions in utilities (power, gas, telecommunications), disruption in the financial sector, disruptions in transportation (airlines, trains, trucking, ports, ships); pharmaceutical shortages; disruption of health care services or emergency medical services; disruption of fire and public safety services; disruptions or inadequacies, or overwhelming of public works operations and services.

"Disruptions" and "incidents" can include demonstrations, work stoppages, strikes, organized or spontaneous vandalism, looting, and riots. Also included are sabotage and terrorist acts and attacks. (These notations have been adapted in part from notations used in the Y2K Impact Scale survey instrument in 1998 by WDCY2K. Bruce F. Webster, The Homeland Security Survival Guide, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ, 1999.  This scale is an adaptation of the WDCY2K Scale.)


                The All Hazards Impact Scale can provide a common frame of reference for recognizing, identifying, analyzing, and discussing, key factors that can be considered by those roles of responsibility for formulating and implementing policy.  It can be used to help get policy makers, planners, analysts, and practitioners “in the same book,” if not “on the same page” when it comes to understanding, assessing, and dealing with specific events, challenges, and possibilities.



The Typology of Emergencies, the All Hazards Emergency Management Cycle, and the All Hazards Impact Scale are three complementary ways of looking at emergencies.  They can be helpful tools in emergency management and homeland security.  They can help individuals develop multi-dimensional perspectives concerning emergencies of differing levels of severity and impacts.  They may be helpful in providing a framework that contributes to the deepening understanding concerning the differences between catastrophes and lesser emergencies and the different plans that need to be in place and the different actions that need to be taken.  This is most importantly the case when it comes to catastrophic events that involve significant failure of the major elements of the critical infrastructure.

These tools can be helpful in deepening understanding of scenarios that have unfolded.  The tools can be helpful in spurring imagination concerning possible scenarios that could unfold. The tools can aid those in positions of responsibility act in ways that are far more proactive and realistic than in the past, particularly as regards catastrophic and other unprecedented events.   




Paula D. Gordon is an educator, writer, analyst, and consultant and a long time member of ASPA.  She has also served in a variety of capacities in the Federal government.  Her website at includes articles, reports, publications, and presentations on homeland security and emergency management and organizational, managerial, ethical, and educational issues.   Her doctoral dissertation, Public Administration in the Public Interest is posted at   She can be reached by e-mail at   She is based in Washington, D.C.

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