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Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook

Handbook 06-08
May 2006

CALL Handbook No. 06-08: Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook Cover

The Language of Disasters and Incidents

Chapter 1

Disasters, Hazards, and Incidents

Before dawn on the 17th of January 1994, an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale struck the greater Los Angeles area. The Northridge Earthquake left more than 70 persons dead and injured thousands more. It collapsed buildings, caused outages in water and power systems, ruptured oil and water pipelines, disrupted communications, and started a number of fires. Until 2005 this earthquake was the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Legal practitioners may refer to the Northridge Earthquake as “an act of God” because it was outside human control, but emergency responders apply their own language to events like this. Defining these terms and seeing their relationship is key to understanding the language of disaster response. Figure 1-1 depicts the relationship among various terms used to describe events addressed by the Stafford Act and the National Response Plan (NRP).

Graphic depicting major disasters

Figure 1-1

Each of these terms comes from two sources, one dating from before 9/11 and the other after 9/11. The older terms in the Stafford Act (major disaster, natural disaster, and domestic disaster) are more familiar to the layman, while the newer ones in the NRP (incident, catastrophic incident, and incident of national significance) are elements of the more specialized vocabulary of emergency responders. Both older and newer terms are used, and the staff officer should understand how to use all of them.

The Two Sources


Robert T. Stafford Relief and Emergency Act (as amended)

National Response Plan (NRP)

Short Name

Stafford Act or

42 USC §§ 5121-5206



1988, effective May 1989

Dec 2004


U.S. Congress

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)


“To provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance by the Federal Government to State and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to alleviate the suffering and damage which result from … disasters.”

“To establish a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to domestic across a spectrum of activities, including prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.”


Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)


Disasters and Hazards

Where the Stafford Act uses the term “disasters”; the NRP uses “hazards.” A disaster differs from a hazard in the sense that it has already occurred and caused significant damage, while a hazard, as defined by the NRP, is simply “something that is potentially dangerous or harmful, often the root cause of an unwanted outcome.” The Northridge Earthquake was a disaster, while earthquakes in general are hazards. All disasters or hazards fall into two general categories (natural or manmade) and most fall into one of a number of sub-categories.



Natural Events

  • Avalanche
  • Earthquake
  • Landslide, rock slide, mud slide
  • Subsidence
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Hydro-Meteorological Events

  • Drought
  • Flood
  • Hurricane
  • Severe storm
  • Tornado
  • Tropical storm
  • Typhoon
  • Tsunami or tidal wave
  • Winter, snow or ice storm
  • Other Events

  • Wildfires (lightning-caused)


    Accidental/Unintentional Events

  • Aircraft crash
  • Hazardous materials spill
  • Nuclear accidents
  • Oil spill
  • Train derailment
  • Wildfire (accidental)
  • Intentional/Deliberate

  • Arson
  • Terrorist
  • Hijacking
  • Biological attack
  • Chemical attack
  • Explosives attack
  • Nuclear attack
  • Radiological attack
  • The Stafford Act Declarations

    The Stafford Act commits federal resources to responding to damaging, life-threatening disasters when state and local efforts cannot handle them. The federal government reacts to formal state requests for assistance in three principal ways, the first two requiring a Presidential declaration:

    1) Major disaster declaration: In response to a request from the governor of a state, the President makes this declaration, thus opening the way to a large federal commitment of resources, including the potential deployment of Department of Defense (DOD) personnel and resources. The frequency of major disasters and the costs to the federal government are on the rise because of:

    • Increasing population density
    • Increasing settlement in high-risk areas
    • Increasing technological risks (for example, hazardous substances)

    The result of these changing circumstances is one disaster causes additional disasters. For example, an earthquake may rupture gas lines, causing fires and chemical spills.

    Facts about major disaster declarations, FY00-05:

    • Average of about 50 per year (compare this to 30 per year, FY82-87)
    • Varied impact on states:
      • Only Rhode Island and Connecticut had no declarations
      • Only Florida averaged more than two per year
    • Types and frequency of disasters:
      • At least one in two included severe storms and/or flooding
      • One in five included tornadoes
      • One in ten were hurricanes
      • One in fifty were earthquakes
      • Less than one in one-hundred were terrorist attacks

    2) Emergency declaration: On the request of a governor, the Presidential declaration authorizes a lesser federal commitment, limited to $5 million.

    Facts about emergency declarations, FY00-05:

    • Average of 19 per year
    • Number varies widely from year to year (FY99, 5; FY05, 67)
    • Snow or winter storms were the most common type before FY05
    • Note four unusual types of emergency:
      • Virus threat (West Nile virus)
      • Loss of the space shuttle Columbia
      • Power outage
      • Hurricane evacuation (first used in FY05, 40+ emergencies)

    3) Fire management assistance declaration: Authorizes the use of federal funds to mitigate, manage, and control fires burning on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands. On the request of a governor, the regional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director makes the declaration, not the President.

    Facts about fire management assistance, FY00-05

    • Average of 50 per year
    • Funding provided through the President’s Disaster Relief Fund
    • Funding pays 75 percent of the state’s firefighting costs
    • Not mentioned in the NRP

    FEMA posts basic information about each of the individual declarations of major disasters, emergencies, and fires on its Website at the following URL: Figure 1-2 shows the relationship between the severity of an event and the level of response to the event.

    Graphic depicting the Stafford Act
    Figure 1-2


    Number FY00-05

    Last Declaration in FY05

    Major Disasters


    FEMA-1607-DR, Louisiana – Hurricane Rita



    FEMA-3263-EM, Delaware – Hurricane Katrina Evacuation



    California, Topanga Fire

    Facts about Declarations:

    • With a few exceptions, states must always take the initiative in requesting a declaration.
    • Each affected state has a separate declaration, even when they are impacted by the same disaster, emergency, or fire.
    • FEMA assigns a sequential number to each major disaster (DR) or emergency (EM).
    • A small portion of declared emergencies and fires escalate, requiring a subsequent major disaster declaration (for example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina).

    From the Stafford Act to the NRP

    The Stafford Act dates from a time when there was little expectation of a terrorist attack. Since 1988 only four terrorist attacks have merited major disaster declarations, but the four were of such magnitude and impact they re-shaped the national approach to all disasters.




    Feb 1993

    FEMA-984-DR, New York

    World Trade Center Explosion

    Apr 1995

    FEMA-1048-DR, Oklahoma

    Explosion at Federal Courthouse, Oklahoma City

    Sep 2001

    FEMA-1391-DR, New York

    Terrorist Attack

    Sep 2001

    FEMA-1392-DR, Virginia

    Terrorist Attack

    After the World Trade Center explosion and the Oklahoma City Federal Courthouse bombing in the 1990s, new terminology not found in the Stafford Act began to emerge relating to the tools at the disposal of terrorists.

    Graphic depicting WMD
    Figure 1-3

    In the new terminology, terrorists employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to cause death, destruction, and fear. Figure 1-3 shows the types of weapons that are considered weapons of mass destruction. Destruction encompasses the entire range from physical wreckage and loss of life to damage to the society, economy, national security, and national well-being. The DOD has used a general definition of WMD: “Weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people.” The DOD also uses the term “chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosives” (CBRNE or CBRN-E) to encompass the full range of WMD. The NRP uses a precise definition of WMD that is spelled out in U.S. laws.

    Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

    1) Any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas, bomb, grenade, rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces, or missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce, or mine or similar device

    2) Any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury during the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors

    3) Any weapon involving a disease organism

    4) Any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.

    Source: Title 18, U.S. C. para. 2332a

    Incidents in the NRP

    The NRP employs a new term, incident, intended to be broader and more inclusive than the terms disaster and emergency. An incident is “an occurrence or event, natural or human-caused, that requires an emergency response to protect life or property.” Figure 4-1 shows the relationship between various types of incidents discussed in the NRP.

    Facts about incidents:

    • Number tens of thousands each year.
    • Most are handled solely by local first responders.
    • A small portion are of sufficient magnitude to require federal assistanceincluding events of great magnitude:
      • Catastrophic incidents
      • Incidents of national significance

    Catastrophic incidents are comparable to Presidentially-declared major disasters. These terms both suggest natural and manmade events that do significant harm and which overwhelm the response capabilities of local and state governments. The definition of catastrophic incident differs from that of major disaster only in that it fits more neatly within the framework of the Global War on Terrorism.



    “Any natural catastrophe or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion, in any part of the United States, which in the determination of the President causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under [the Stafford Act] to supplement the efforts and available resources of States, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby.”

    “Any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions. A catastrophic event could result in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; almost immediately exceeds resources normally available to State, local, tribal, and private-sector authorities in the impacted area; and significantly interrupts governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened.”

    Facts about catastrophic incidents:

    The NRP includes a Catastrophic Incident Annex (NRP-CIA). Only the Secretary of Homeland Security or designee can implement this annex.

    Incident of national significance is a term that is intended to cover the full range of federal responses to incidents. It is “an actual or potential high-impact event that requires a coordinated and effective response by and appropriate combination of Federal, State, local, tribal, nongovernmental, and/or private-sector entities in order to save lives and minimize damage, and provide the basis for long-term community recovery and mitigation activities.” Incidents of national significance include all Presidentially-declared emergencies or major disasters, all catastrophic incidents, and all national security special events (potential targets for terrorists, such as the Presidential Inauguration). The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate as such an incident of national significance.

    Facts about incidents of national significance:

    • All major disasters declared by the President.
    • All emergencies declared by the President.
    • All catastrophic incidents.
    • All national security special events (potential targets for terrorists, such as the Presidential Inauguration).
    • May be designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security or designee.

    Graphic depicting incidents handled by state and local governments
    Figure 1-4

    Disaster Response and Incident Management

    Responses to terrorist WMD attacks differ from responses to natural disasters. First responders need to deal with the effects of WMD, which may be different from effects of natural disasters. At the same time, the responders may have to deal with further terrorist attack and with bringing the terrorists to justice. Consequence management and crisis management emerged to describe the manner in which to handle the two needed responses.

    Consequence Management

    Crisis Management





    Mitigating the damage/effects

    Avoiding the crisis


    Emergency management

    Law enforcement function



    “Measures to protect public health and safety, restore essential government services, and provide emergency relief to governments, businesses, and individuals affected by the consequences of terrorism.”

    “Measures to identify, acquire, and plan the use of resources needed to anticipate, prevent, and/or resolve a threat or act of terrorism.”

    Scope (JP 1-02)

    “Actions taken to maintain or restore essential services and manage and mitigate problems resulting from disasters and catastrophes, including natural, manmade, or terrorist incidents.”

    Same as the above

    The requirements of consequence management and crisis management are combined in the NRP.

    The DOD definition of consequence management is problematic, given that it encompasses both natural and manmade disasters, not just terrorist actions. At the same time, the NRP uses the terms “consequences” and “effects” interchangeably when considering the outcomes for both natural disasters and manmade disasters, including those caused by terrorists. If the staff officer encounters the term consequence management, he should ask for a definition.

    Incident Management

    The NRP replaces consequence management and crisis management as separate functions with a single term, incident management. Incident management aims to remove the boundaries between consequence management and crisis management. The goal of incident management is to orchestrate “the prevention of, preparedness for, response to, and recovery from terrorism, major natural disasters, and other major emergencies.”

    Spectrum of Incident Management







    This handbook focuses on the response phase when the DOD is most actively engaged.


    Activities that address the short-term, direct effects of an incident. Response includes immediate actions to save lives, protect property, and meet basic human needs.

    Disaster Response

    This handbook will use the term "disaster response" when discussing DOD participation in incident management for a number of reasons:

    • Major disaster, which encompasses both natural and manmade catastrophes, including those caused by terrorists using WMD, offers the clearest definition for those instances in which states or other federal agencies will need the help of the DOD.
    • So long as the Stafford Act remains the principal source of federal disaster response funding, the alternative terms (incident, catastrophic incident, incident of national significance) are of lesser importance. The NRP has not replaced the term major disaster.
    • Leaving aside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the DOD is primarily involved in the response phase of incident management, not in prevention, preparedness, or recovery.
    • Incident management has superceded the terms consequence management and crisis management, which have had a tendency to muddy the waters of clarity through varied usage in the past. Regardless of the term, the DOD does not manage the response; it only executes assigned missions.
    • Disaster response or disaster relief continue to be the layman’s language, while the term incident management has a narrow usage.

    The United States, the Homeland

    The Northridge Earthquake was a domestic disaster, meaning that it took place within the United States. When the Stafford Act and the NRP use the term “United States,” they mean more than just the 50 states. The United States, which we can also call the Homeland, consists of the following together with its coastal zone and air space:

    • The 50 States and the District of Columbia
    • Non-state possessions (regarded as states)
      • Insular areas in the Caribbean
        • Puerto Rico
        • Virgin Islands
      • Insular areas in the Pacific Ocean
        • American Samoa
        • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)
        • Guam
    • Freely associated states (not mentioned in the Stafford Act)
      • Insular areas in the Pacific Ocean
        • Federated States of Micronesia
        • Republic of the Marshall Islands

    In terms of the NRP and disaster response, the District of Columbia, the non-state possessions, and the freely associated states, are all “states,” with the same rights and responsibilities accorded to each of the fifty states. The state in this broad sense is the basic geographic unit in disaster response. The state’s chief executive, usually in the person of the governor, is the one who must make the case for and request a federal response in case of a disaster.

    Within each state, local chief executive officers (for example, mayors and county commissioners) and tribal chief executive officers must request state and, if necessary, federal disaster assistance through the governor. The local and tribal officers rely on their own law enforcement, firefighting, and other resources to make the first response to an incident. These first responders always take the initial action, whether the incident is a routine, small-scale emergency or a major disaster that will eventually require the presence of the DOD.

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