What is the difference between disaster and emergency?

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Emergency and disaster management deals with the coordinated efforts of communities to organize and manage available resources in order to address urgent humanitarian needs.

In order to enable better emergency and disaster management and planning, it is important to first differentiate the terms disaster and emergency. While these two are...

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Emergency and disaster management deals with the coordinated efforts of communities to organize and manage available resources in order to address urgent humanitarian needs.

In order to enable better emergency and disaster management and planning, it is important to first differentiate the terms disaster and emergency. While these two are often used interchangeably, there is a significant difference that makes for better response and recovery.

An emergency is an unforeseen incidence that can be responded to using available resources. They occur more regularly than disasters and are therefore more anticipated by a community. These may include medical crises, vehicular accidents, and neighborhood fires. As such, the availability of emergency medical services, fire departments, police departments, and other such public services ensure the proper response to such unfortunate events.

A disaster, however, is a critical event much wider in scope. It is the sudden occurrence of an unfavorable situation that causes serious disruption to the social routine. It endangers a larger social space, and while it occurs much less frequently than emergencies, the effects are graver, often causing multiple casualties and/or property damage. Such a greater impact can disrupt and incapacitate emergency responders, leading to the need for assistance outside of the locality. Resources may very well become choked.

While its effects are much greater than an emergency, a disaster is unlike a calamity in that it affects only a single community. As such, neighboring communities with ample resources and responders are able to offer support to usher the affected community towards its recovery. Disaster types include natural hazards (earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfire, disease outbreaks), accidents (nuclear power plant accidents, widescale equipment failure), and terrorism (cyber attacks, bombings, use of chemical weapons).

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A disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss to the affected community. The World Health Organization defines it as “a sudden ecological phenomenon of sufficient magnitude to require external assistance”.

An emergency, on the other hand, is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster. It can cause immediate danger to people’s lives or might not be immediately life-threatening, and can extend to the wider environment. Examples include forest fires, oil spills, health emergencies such as cardiac arrests or road accidents and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

A disaster affects larger sections of the community than an emergency. An emergency can deteriorate into a disaster if urgent action is not taken, or if the intervention measures are overwhelmed. However, a disaster does not always have to be preceded by an emergency, for instance, a sudden unexpected asteroid strike.

Disasters can either be natural or man-made. Examples of natural disasters are earthquakes, storms, heat waves, landslides, and droughts. Specific examples are the 2004 typhoons in the Philippines, the Tsunami floods or the 2007 hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the US. Examples of man-made disasters are nuclear reactor accidents, collapsing buildings or explosions.

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