Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Critical Incident, or Just a Crisis?

As you may know, I have Google Analytics installed both on this blog and on the website for my consulting services.  This service tracks statistics about visits to the sites, and enables me to generate nifty reports about all sorts of things, such as what browser my readers are using and what state they are in.  This morning, I noticed that a visitor to my consulting site from Australia had found my page after googling, "what is the difference between a critical incident and a crisis?"  I thought that was a pretty good question, and one that is not, in fact, addressed on my consulting site, so I'm going to try to address it here.  Maybe my Aussie fan will google his/her question again and find an answer this time.

When people talk about Critical Incident Stress Management, they often use "critical incident" and "crisis" interchangeably.  You will note that I am not the Monday Morning Critical Incident Quarterback, for example, although CISM is what I do and what, for the most part, I write about.  But they aren't really 100% the same.  Let's look at some definitions.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "crisis" as "a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger."

The term "Critical Incident" is a term of art, and like all good terms of art it is used by two totally different groups to mean two very different things.  One way it is used is in the phrase "Critical Incident Technique."  According to Wikipedia, in this context a critical incident is "one that makes a significant contribution - either positively or negatively - to an activity or phenomenon."  The Critical Incident Technique seeks to study these incidents and how people respond to them to learn how better to respond to future instances.

In the phrase "Critical Incident Stress Management," on the other hand, a critical incident is defined as one which, because of how intense, violent, sudden or frightening it is, has the potential to overwhelm people's usual methods of coping.  Critical Incident Stress Management, then, is a technique to help manage the stress that can be, but is not always, caused by critical incidents.

So what's the difference between a crisis and a critical incident?  From a CISM perspective, all critical incidents are crises, but not all crises are critical incidents.  The current economic crisis, for example, is a crisis for our country, but only a critical incident for some of us.  A shortage of Big Macs is a crisis for McDonalds, but probably not a critical incident, at least not for most people.  On the other hand, 9-11 was a crisis for the country and a critical incident for large number of people around the country.

So, Aussie person, that's the difference.  I hope it helps you and some other readers as well.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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