November 28, 2022

The Critical Incident Concept

Critical Incident Analysis is a concept with a history. Previous definitions evolved from discussions at several universities, based upon cases that were explored by criminal justice experts, journalists, behavioral scientists and others with operational and academic responsibilities. National Centers initiated and supported by the Dart Foundation have included:

The interests of sponsors and participants affected the choice of incidents for analysis and the elements of each incident that were scrutinized. The process of defining a critical incident was therefore inductive and subjective, derived from cases that appeared to merit study, that shared certain characteristics, and that passed an intuitive threshold for significance.

The siege and subsequent mass death at Waco was the seminal case. Natural disasters, catastrophic human errors and acts of terrorism, before and after Waco, were dissected, debated and examined for multiple meaning in college classes, expert colloquia and Congressional testimony. These incidents included the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Exxon Valdez oil spil in 1989l, Murrah Building bombing in 1995, and the 9/11 attack in 2001.

As government officials became interested in this emerging field of interdisciplinary case study, the definition of critical incident became, almost by design, scripted to the concerns of Western democratic leaders:

An event that has the potential for causing social trauma and undermining social trust, creating fear that may have impact on community life and even on the practice of democracy. (Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia)

A relatively brief occurrence involving injury, loss, or conflict of significant proportion, with the potential to change existing societal norms. Critical incidents are usually traumatic, threatening the bonds of trust that bind democracies. (National Center for Critical Incident Analysis at the National Defense University.)

But these definitions can be expanded and revised to permit analysis of positive events, such as the removal of the Berlin Wall and the first Moon landing. There is good reason to include, in a definition of critical incidents, episodes in dramatic historic fiction such as the action of Achilles at Troy.

The ACIA Symposium participants will be asked to start with the following conceptual elements of the critical incident:

  • The event is unexpected, at least by those who are not perpetrators or initiators.
  • There is a consequential impact on many at the time of occurrence.
  • The event and its immediate impact are limited in time and space, making it an incident or episode rather than a condition –such as war or poverty or pandemic.
  • There is potential for much larger gain or loss or change, depending upon the event itself, the actions of those accountable for managing such incidents, and other important variables, such as the stability or fragility of the community in which the event occurs.

A model of critical incident analysis has emerged over 15 years of collaboration, and the model assists in defining critical incident at the same time that it depends upon an accepted definition. The model includes the event itself, the authorized interveners responsible for managing such events, and the larger community affected by the event. This larger community may be a nation, an industry or a society with its various customs and culture. Time-limited incidents rarely have the power to change a culture, but they often, in retrospect, symbolize a turning point or epitomize an epoch. The definition and meaning of critical incident therefore includes not just the event, but also the behaviors of those at the scene, the context in which it occurs, and the impact beyond the theater of action.

The symposium participants will, together, define and redefine critical incidents as we have collective experience studying the phenomena. As a tentative, preliminary formulation, based on the clear desire of faculty to include positive and literary events, and to extend the purview beyond democratic societies, the following revision is suggested by Dr. Frank Ochberg:

A Critical Incident is a relatively brief occurrence involving injury, loss, conflict, discovery or change of significant proportion, usually unscripted and unanticipated, with the potential to alter existing societal norms. Critical incidents are usually traumatic, threatening the bonds of trust that bind communities, but may be positive, initiating historic consequents.