Simply put, Crisis Management Teams (CMTs) manage a company crisis, while Incident Management Teams (IMTs) manage incidents. Therefore, a comparison discussion has to begin with a clear definition of a crisis and an emergency incident to distinguish between the two. Dictionary definitions are not very helpful in this regard, except for one notable distinguishing characteristic; there is a time component difference. A crisis is “…an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs…”[i] whereas an emergency incident is happening right at this instant. In most instances, there is, perhaps, more time to deal with a crisis. Providing examples or metaphors to distinguish between the two is likely more helpful.
An emergency incident is an event with grave consequential risks that sometimes involve human health and safety (fires), destructive impact to the environment (oil spills), negative impacts to public property, private property and/or valued recreational, historical or archaeological sites (hurricanes). Emergency incidents tend to be local, but multiple incidents occurring together or large incidents with widespread, regional impacts can become disasters, or if they involve the entire nation, catastrophes.
Companies can survive emergency incidents, disasters or catastrophes, but when any of these events pose critical risk or endanger the integrity or survivability of the company, then we have a crisis. Where IMTs are focused on resolving the emergency incident, CMTs are focused on the integrity and survival of the company or in hopeless situations, on ensuring the company suffers termination with the least negative impacts, a noble death, per se.
A good metaphor is to compare the company to the human body. The company/organization represents the body whole. An incident is an assault on a specific component of the body, like a cut to the hand, a twisted ankle or a virus attack (computers). In extreme incidents where decapitation occurs (tornado, fire) the situation becomes an instant crisis. In these cases, the CMT is focused on the noble death objective; however, in most situations, emergencies only assault a part of the corporate body and if the wound or illness (incident) is treated by emergency procedure (the response), the body survives and a crisis is averted. When the entire body (integrity and survivability) of the company is impacted by the emergency, we have a crisis.
This does not mean that a crisis and an emergency response are exclusive of one another. On the contrary, the body and mind need care when hospitalized even for a minor injury. So, the difference between Incident Management and Crisis Management is really one of focus.
The difference in focus can be analyzed by breaking down each approach according to key response critical success factors. For a crisis or an incident to be resolved successfully, incident response or crisis management leadership must focus and address five critical success factors, 1) the people directly involved, 2) the event, (emergency or crisis), 3) leadership, (the boss), 4) stakeholders, and 5) image.
How Emergency Repsonse (IMTs) Address:
Take care of Responders/Public
Conduct Incident Operations
Take care of CMT & Supervisors
Take care of local & political agents
Inform local Media
How Crisis Management (CMTs) Address:
Take care of Employees & IMT
Conduct Crisis Management
Take care of CEO/Board of Directors
Take care of Clients & Customers
Take care of reputation
As one can see, the IMT, to be successful, must focus on protecting responders and the public. They have to mitigate the emergency by taking response actions and conducting incident operations. They must keep their supervisors informed, (often times these are the Crisis Management Teams). They have to take care of their local and political stakeholders within the response and political communities. Finally, they have to address the media through proactive communications. Failure in any of these critical success factors is likely to result in the failure of the response effort.
The CMT, on the other hand, is focused on the corporate body and therefore must take care of its employees and the IMT. Its priorities are aligned toward maintaining the integrity of company operations, business continuity and its critical processes; profitability and reputation. This is how they manage the crisis. Their leadership are the CEO and Board of Directors. Their partners are clients and customers. Finally, the CMT is concerned about reputation and so their communications are not limited to the media, but to the broader audience of stakeholders within the global community, including their suppliers and licensees. Their focus is therefore on strategic communications rather than simple media engagement.
Relationships between IMTs and CMTs need to be synchronized. The two entities are mutually supportive, the IMT supports the CMT by resolving the incident successfully, and the CMT supports the IMT by ensuring they have the right guidance and resources to execute the mission. The CMT must always be in a support role to the IMT and avoid “mission creep” into managing the incident. They provide priorities and strategic direction as well as getting resources for the IMT that they are unable to obtain on their own. IMTs must ensure they execute emergency response operations within the guidelines of the CMT.
Much argument has been made for companies to adopt an Area Command (AC) model to respond to a corporate crisis. There are many aspects and tools within the AC model that could make this work, however, for a crisis that is largely internal, many corporations have structures and processes in place for managing the crisis more effectively. If the crisis requires the company to merge with another company or regulator, an Area Command approach should be considered. For more information on Area Command and what tools could be useful for Crisis Management, please contact the EMSI corporate office.
Hand in hand, IMTs and CMTs can be successful in achieving the mutual goals of responding to incidents and ensuring the viability of the company whole. They are formidable components and allies in ensuring success in responding to an incident, disaster or catastrophe.
 Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, www.merriam-webster.com