What are the Stages of Emergency?

Stacey Ashley Blog

What are the Stages of Emergency?

I was getting ready to run a resilience and leadership in emergencies workshop recently, and I realised that I needed to do some serious investigation into the stages of an emergency to really understand what an emergency was in order to speak with some authority.


an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action’

Webster dictionary


Here is a summary of what I discovered, though the terms are often used interchangeably between emergency and disaster, and disaster and catastrophe.

At the base level, there is a minor emergency – this tends to be isolated, perhaps to a business or a particular geographical area.

Then there’s disaster – which is more expansive, and that might be because the impact is felt more broadly. It might start to not just impact a single unit like a business, but multiple businesses and /or multiple geographies and communities.

Then we move to catastrophe – this is typically something that we are simply not prepared to handle. It is so extensive. Impacts are far-reaching in terms of impacts on people, organisations, economies, communities, and the amount of time the event lasts for, making it catastrophic in nature.


What are the stages of emergency, and as leaders, how do we respond?

The four key stages of emergency leadership are

  1. Prevention – where we do whatever we can to stop the event from happening, to minimise it or mitigate the risk.
  2. Preparedness – the focus here is about how we get ready, what plans we have in place, what preventative activity we do, how capable we are of responding, and so on. How often we practise our response, whether we audit and assess our readiness.
  3. The third component is response. The event has happened and now it is about how do we respond to it? Those are all the things we do from the very early minutes and moments, right through to, I guess, the end of the event.
  4. Then the final component is recovery. Recovery, of course, is all the things that we do to get ourselves back on track or determine, a new way of operating and being, that is sustainable and the way that we want the future to develop.
Stages of Emergency

As leaders, we need to show up in all of those stages and be actively leading.

What became clear through the conversations in this workshop was that there was a real sense of ‘we are operating in multiple spaces at the same time.’ For example, with the COVID situation, there was a level of preparedness in some organisations, in some communities, but certainly not all. Then came the response, which was everything from individuals, businesses and organisations, to governments of countries, and world organisations. The response is ongoing at different levels, throughout different societies, communities, industries, and organisations. Recovery has also commenced, again, different stages for different parts of the world and different industries and different economies.

What we are seeing is that we have response and recovery in play, and we should be seeing more focused on prevention. Nobody wants to have more lockdowns and we don’t want to have another pandemic situation arising. And then the preparedness element is also in play.

So it is not a nice linear process. It is a cycle and there will be multiple cycles operating at the same time, That requires leadership activation.

Stages of Emergency - complex

What you need to be thinking about as a leader, is not just how you are responding and looking to recover at the moment.

You also need to have activity happening in prevention and in preparedness so that you are more ready next time, if there is a next time. You need to have more robust plans and better communication processes, clear understanding of the protocols, as well as people who feel equipped and confident to contribute to the situation.

It’s common sense.

Where are you, your team and your organisation operating in these four stages of the emergency cycle right now?

What do you think is the one area that needs more focus right now?

I’d love to know your thoughts.

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