Understanding Critical Incidents

Understanding Critical Incidents

Our experience is that deciding when something is in fact an “incident” worthy of picking up a telephone and reporting, is not easy for most lay people.

During critical incidents there are two big pressures – time pressure and the threat of imminent loss.  These pressures affect human thinking.  They tend to promote early decisions, moving to action rather than gathering sufficient information to understand what is going on first, they tend to promote faulty causality (assuming the root lies there when it doesn’t) and they tend to promote short term planning rather than thinking two steps ahead.  The pressures of critical incidents also impact people’s ability to notice, observe, communicate, record, remember and a host of other functions.

We emotionally don’t respond well to pressure and pressure always impairs performance.

Think of it this way…

Incidents are discrete events, things that can be defined by time (a start and end time), by type (what is occurring) and by cause and effect (this happened and it caused that).  As humans we are wired to understand and think in an incident orientated way.  Its how nature works.  A thunderstorm is a distinct event, it starts, stops and leaves water on the ground.  Sunrise is a distinct event and nocturnal species go to sleep on that cue whilst diurnal ones use that discrete event to get going again.  If you think about it, each day, and indeed all of life, is a long string of distinct events that occur.  We are used to working with the idea of incidents.

But if everything in life can be described as an “incident” then how do we know which ones are “critical” and therefore which ones we need help with?  A building burning like a raging bonfire is obviously a pretty serious incident and a guest at a hotel who asks for a couple of paracetamol for a headache doesn’t seem like an incident of note.  But it gets tricky.  The man could have slipped down the stairs and sustained a serious blow to his head.  He may think he is ok, but unbeknown to him and you he might have a bleed in his skull even as he stands there at the reception desk asking for tablets. Later that evening he might be confused and later yet you might get an urgent call as he is found unconscious.

It can get trickier yet – the fire in the building may be impossible to extinguish, the building may be old and due for renovation, not essential to business, well separated from other properties and very well insured.  The impact?  Some time and logistical effort to get it rebuilt but perhaps you were about to do that anyway, pull it down and rebuild it better.  So perhaps the building on fire may not be all that much of a problem in the end. But a guest dying as a result of an injury on your property could be a legal nightmare that goes on for years.

Critical incidents are strange threats, non familiar to most of us.  One of the most important messages we can communicate is that obtaining help is a very good idea; it’s either that or spend time learning about them and obtain specific training to deal with them.  One incident gone badly wrong can seriously damage or even terminate a business; it is really important to get it right.

So how do you know?  How do you judge which is serious and which not?

This really big question is where the phrase “critical incident” came from.  Some are critical, some aren’t.

To decide which is which, first ask how badly the incident could hurt you.  The potential of the incident to cause harm (we call this the impact of the incident), is the first key in defining a “critical” incident.

The second consideration is time.  There is always a window of opportunity to affect the outcome of any incident.  But only a window – act too late and your actions won’t change anything, you can’t un-burn buildings or resuscitate deceased people.  Ask yourself how much time you have – do you have to act immediately, soon, or will tomorrow or next week be just fine?  Time is a characteristic of all incidents and used to determine criticality.

Answering these two questions accurately 1) “how badly could this incident hurt me?” and 2) “how much time do I have to respond?”, is a crucial step in incident management.

“Criticality” is a technical term but its pretty simple – its just a way of describing how bad an incident is.  One of high “criticality” means the potential loss is greater and you have less time to act.  The general term “critical incident” is used to mean one of higher criticality.

Working with incidents…

A good incident manager is skilled in what is called “modeling”, that is sifting through all the information, organizing it, checking it, uncovering key facts and basically figuring out what is actually happening.  Answering the two fundamental questions correctly.  Then these two answers and there sub-dynamics are explained in a clear and informative way so that everyone has good “situational awareness.”  The first step in responding is to see clearly what is going on and what the risks actually are.

People really are like fish out of water in critical incidents.  Our brains struggle with a multitude of swirling, disorganized information of uncertain accuracy, we don’t think well in that environment and dealing with it takes special training and practice.

So incidents leave people out of their depth and unlikely to gather all the relevant information, gain good situational awareness and work out the best long term plan.  They are unlikely to know which resources are best to use and where to find them and how to manage them.  They are unlikely to do all of this in order to give yourself the best chance of the best outcome to incidents.

Critical incidents are a specialist job and it is unreasonable and sometimes frankly traumatic to expect lay people to take on the responsibility of managing them. The way we naturally are as human beings is in many respects the antithesis of the way we need to be to neutralize modern incident threats.  We find that specific training is required to think in ways which are often non instinctive and even uncomfortable for people.


Once you get a grasp of the concept of critical and not so critical incidents, you will bump into one of incident management’s greatest challenges; incidents are usually murky and messy and vague and it is very difficult to get good information.  It’s all nice and well to ask what the potential impact of the incident is, but what if you don’t know, and nobody else does either?  Or people have different ideas and opinions?  Add stress and panic to that equation and it gets very difficult to get straight answers.  This is the normal state of incidents.  Disorder.  Confusion.  Millennia ago there was emotion, stress and panic perhaps, but everything was much clearer – a mammoth running down the mountainside is pretty hard to miss or confuse for a antelope.  The complexity of the threats facing our human made systems creates a mess of unclear information.

In summary then, an “incident” of concern – one we would call a “critical incident” – is one that demands urgent and often immediate decisions and response and one which has the capacity to really hurt you if it goes wrong.  If you recognize these characteristics, you have an incident you should be calling for help on.