What Are the Phases of Emergency Management?

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A mother and child wrapped in a blanket during a disaster.Across the country, disasters strike swiftly, ripping through communities and causing structural damage, economic loss and human fatalities. In June 2022, severe weather events tore across several states; hail and strong winds caused considerable damage to private property, businesses and infrastructure over most of Nebraska, with the damage across all affected states costing $1.4 billion in damages, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

To mitigate or prevent disaster costs — financial and human — employers need emergency management professionals. Emergency managers use their knowledge and skills to reduce a disaster’s impact before, during and after the disaster strikes by breaking down the process into phases.

People looking to better understand the phases of emergency management should consider earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science (MS) in Safety, Security and Emergency Management.

Why Emergency Management Is Important

In an emergency, it’s easy to understand how quickly people can get caught up in the chaos. This is why emergency management is critical. The process anticipates solutions and creates plans to prevent disasters from becoming worse, and it plots a path for recovery if they do.

Emergency management provides protection at an individual, community and organizational level by planning for and reacting during an emergency. In a flood, an emergency manager might dictate where a community should shelter if the neighborhoods are no longer safe. The emergency manager might detail an emergency escape route for an office building’s staff in the event of an earthquake. The emergency manager might teach individuals what to do if someone chokes or has a heart attack and no EMTs are available to help.

The Four Phases of Emergency Management

The phases of emergency management are divided into four categories: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Each phase is meant to build toward the next. For example, resources gathered in the event of an emergency during the second phase are used in the third and fourth phases. Similarly, information gathered in the recovery phase can be used to create more thorough prevention and mitigation strategies.

Each phase has distinct actions and activities that flow from one phase to another. Emergency management must function holistically to plan for an emergency from start to finish, as focusing only on one phase might lead to problems if unanticipated events happen. A skilled emergency manager knows the importance of creating a cohesive emergency management strategy with these four phases.

Phase 1: Prevention and Mitigation

The prevention and mitigation phase includes efforts to lower or eliminate the likelihood of a catastrophe and reduce people’s and communities’ susceptibility to the harmful effects of a disaster. This phase aims to lessen the cycle of catastrophic damage and have long-term sustainable impacts. The phase also aims to mitigate the consequences of a significant disaster by promoting long-term initiatives to reduce the possible adverse effects of future disasters in impacted communities.

Examples of prevention or mitigation include keeping objects off the floor to minimize contamination in the event of a flood or using earthquake straps to secure objects on shelves.

Phase 2: Preparedness

Preparedness is figuring out what people, training and tools are likely to be needed in different possible emergencies and developing plans in case a disaster happens, despite prevention and mitigation. Assessing the potential hazards and weak spots in a given environment, such as gathering food, water and medicine in anticipation of dangerous weather, is part of being ready. This ongoing process can involve all levels of government, the private sector and nonprofit groups.

Preparedness includes programs and systems established before an incident occurs, assisting and improving emergency or disaster response. Examples of readiness are stocking plastic sheeting and absorbent pads, placing them near areas where water contamination could be a concern, and putting water sensors in locations where leaks have occurred.

Phase 3: Response

After a catastrophe, response operations will bring assistance, following plans made in the preparedness phase. The response phase focuses on immediate needs and limiting the possibility of subsequent harm caused by the emergency. Typically, the response phase addresses the immediate and short-term repercussions of a crisis within two to three days.

Examples of response operations are shutting off contaminated water supply resources and placing objects affected by mold in antibacterial containers to prevent cross-contamination.

Phase 4: Recovery

Recovery efforts address a community’s social, environmental, political, and economic components. These actions begin shortly after or simultaneously with the last parts of the response phase. Short-term recovery plans restore critical life-support systems to minimal operational requirements. Long-term recovery plans may last many years after a disaster and aim at getting things back to normal or even improving on the previous conditions while reducing the chance of a future emergency.

After the recovery phase, emergency managers perform an emergency review. They analyze their plan’s success and make changes to improve their methods. Part of an emergency manager’s role is to understand what hasn’t worked and improve each iteration of an emergency management plan to decrease the likelihood of damage or injury.

One example of the recovery phase is removing damaged items or structures, potentially replacing them with versions that are less likely to be damaged in a future emergency.

The Role of Emergency Management Professionals

Emergency management professionals use their strong leadership, communication, decision-making and organizational skills to create an effective emergency management strategy that cohesively streamlines the four phases of emergency management.

During the prevention and mitigation phase, emergency management directors collaborate with government agencies, organizations and the public to create effective emergency plans that minimize damage and interruptions. They also use research into best practices.

In the preparedness phase, they use the information gathered to create plans, typically supervising training courses and disaster drills for staff, volunteers and local agencies to help ensure an effective and coordinated response to an emergency and that individuals and groups are familiar with the emergency procedures.

Emergency managers assist in leading the response phase, prioritizing specific tasks as needed, such as ordering evacuations or organizing recovery shelters built for persons affected by a disaster.

Following an incident in the recovery phase, emergency directors evaluate the damage to the community and manage the delivery of help and supplies. Applying what they learn from a disaster, emergency managers adapt plans and processes to better prepare for future disasters.

Advance Your Skills in Emergency Management

The importance of a well-executed emergency management strategy can’t be understated: These plans can save lives and potentially billions of dollars in damages. If preparing and leading communities facing worst-case scenarios sound like the calling for you, consider Eastern Kentucky University’s online MS in Safety, Security and Emergency Management program.

With concentrations in safety leadership, this master’s program can help students with courses such as Evolution of Emergency Management and Safety, Security, and Emergency Research/Planning. Discover how the phases of emergency management can be a powerful tool for anticipating, mitigating and recovering from disaster.

Recommended Readings

5 Emergency Management Careers

Keeping Workers Safe During an Epidemic or Pandemic

What Is Disaster Recovery? Definition, Solutions and Careers


Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, Emergency Management Cycle

Crisis Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Resource Center, Four Phases of Emergency Management

National Centers for Environmental Information, Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Emergency Preparedness

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Emergency Management Directors