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Defining Emergency Preparedness and Response

There are many related terms and definitions in emergency preparedness and response. This section differentiates between emergencies and disasters and provides other related definitions. This section also defines the four phases of the emergency management cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Mitigation and preparedness occur before an emergency event, while response and recovery occur after an event. At any given time, communities are in at least one of the phases of the emergency management cycle.

Detailed information on rural planning, response, and recovery is in Module 2: Rural Community Planning, Response, and Recovery.

Emergencies, Disasters, and Hazards

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines an emergency, disaster, and hazard as follows:

Emergency “any incident, whether natural, technological, or human-caused, that requires responsive action to protect life or property.”

Disaster “an occurrence of a natural catastrophe, technological accident, or human-caused event that has resulted in severe property damage, deaths, and/or multiple injuries.”

Hazard “something that is potentially dangerous or harmful, often the root cause of an unwanted outcome.”

A key differentiating factor between an emergency and a disaster is the availability of sufficient resources. While both emergencies and disasters can be sudden and catastrophic, emergencies have sufficient resources available to respond while disasters do not. Throughout this toolkit, the terms “emergency” and “disaster” are used interchangeably.

Public health emergencies can include infectious disease outbreaks and other emergency situations such as mass casualty events, natural disasters, weather disasters, wildfires, and chemical spills. Emergencies can be different sizes: There are smaller, more localized events that can be classified as minor emergencies as well as large-scale emergencies, which can be classified as major disasters. Emergencies can be time-limited (acute) or evolving (ongoing). Damage from emergencies can range from minimal to major. Public health emergencies can increase morbidity, mortality, and emotional distress for impacted communities. For examples of how these factors can vary in different situations, see Module 4: Types of Public Health Emergencies and Disasters.


The first phase in the emergency management cycle is mitigation. In this phase, communities take action to minimize the impact and consequences of an emergency or disaster event. Examples of mitigation activities include:

  • Buying insurance
  • Building infrastructure reinforcements (for example, levees for flooding prevention, roof straps for hurricane protection, flexible foundations for earthquake resistance, and fire-resistant building materials)


The second phase in the emergency management cycle is preparedness. In this phase, communities implement a collection of actions, including planning, training, partnerships, and education, before an emergency or disaster event. In rural communities, planning activities may include:

  • Convening planning meetings
  • Standardizing protocols and procedures
  • Engaging cross-sector partners and establishing agreements
  • Educating the public about potential hazards and how to prepare
  • Training community members and volunteers
  • Testing communication systems and equipment
  • Running practice drills

During the preparedness phase, communities should establish plans; determine availability of equipment and supplies; determine roles and responsibilities, including with partners; determine priorities and goals; and establish plans.

For detailed information on planning approaches and considerations, see Rural Community Planning for Emergency Preparedness and Response.


The response phase includes the actions taken after an emergency or disaster to help minimize the negative effects. During the response phase, communities implement the response plan developed in the preparedness phase. This phase may also be referred to as the intra-disaster phase.

In a rural community, response activities may include:

  • Coordinating first responders and volunteers
  • Triaging patients and providing medical care
  • Initiating emergency communications
  • Distributing supplies and equipment
  • Evacuating residents

For more information on response activities, see Rural Community Emergency Response.


The recovery phase focuses on restoring essential services and resuming normal operations. Following an infectious disease pandemic, this phase may be referred to as the post-pandemic environment.

The short-term recovery period generally occurs within the six months after a public health emergency and focuses on addressing the immediate needs of the community. Immediate needs may be restoring essential services such as healthcare and public health facilities, enabling the community to begin to function as normal again.

Long-term recovery may take months or years and focuses on mitigating any long-term negative effects of the emergency. Communities should continue to engage partners to support their recovery needs.

The recovery phase can be initiated while the community is still responding. It is important to incorporate mitigation measures into recovery efforts so that rural communities can build back better and enhance resilience.

For detailed information on recovery considerations, see Rural Community Recovery after an Emergency or Disaster.


The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) defines community resilience as “a community's ability to withstand, adapt, and recover from a disaster or public health emergency.” By strengthening existing public health and health system infrastructure, local health departments can create a strong foundation of health and resilience within the community. In this way, populations within communities can improve their physical, behavioral, and emotional health while mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from public health emergencies.

All-Hazards Approach

All-hazards and flexible preparedness plans support community resilience. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) provides the following definition of an all-hazards approach:

“An all-hazards approach is an integrated approach to emergency preparedness planning that focuses on capacities and capabilities that are critical to preparedness for a full spectrum of emergencies or disasters, including internal emergencies and man-made emergencies (or both) or natural disasters.”

Instead of trying to plan for every possible emergency, an all-hazards approach focuses on building community capacity to be prepared for a broad range of emergencies and disasters.

Case Study

First Responders to Hot Air Balloon Crash in Caldwell County, Texas, Use All-Hazards Response Framework for Mass Fatality Event
When a hot air balloon crashed in rural Texas, the Caldwell County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management initiated a coordinated, all-hazards response in collaboration with outside agencies.

Resources to Learn More

Conceptualizing and Defining Public Health Emergency Preparedness
Proposes a definition of public health emergency preparedness and discusses the key elements of preparedness.
Author(s): Nelson, C., Lurie, N., Wasserman, J., & Zakowski, S.
Citation: American Journal of Public Health, 97(Suppl. 1), S9-S11
Date: 4/2007

Emergency Management in the United States
A training unit outlining the four phases of emergency management and defining common emergency management terminology.
Organization(s): Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)