About UsThe National Center for Critical Incident Analysis is a privately funded, interdisciplinary effort by civilian experts in public health, national security, law enforcement, communications and social psychology dedicated to improving the public's ability to understand and cope with critical incidents, and the government's capacity to anticipate, prevent and manage these serious events.
The trajectory of critical incident analysis by Frank Ochberg
This Handbook of Critical Incident Analysis gathers scholars from remarkably different disciplines who share a common quest. We recognize that certain newsworthy events explode into public awareness, dominate discourse, challenge our sense of equanimity and have the potential to live on as icons of an era. We seek a better understanding of these episodes so that we can define their elements, recognize their antecedents, anticipate their consequences, and gather evidence for scholars and interveners who will confront future incidents. Our work follows other organized efforts to analyze incidents, but emphasizes the creation of an academic enterprise, rather than the critique of crisis management from the perspective of public officials. Our quest, therefore, is the field of critical incident analysis itself. To create this interdisciplinary discipline we need a compendium of cases, an archive of data, an approach to analysis that includes science, history and other tools of the academic trades, and a common language. Along the way, we must set boundaries and limits, but understand relevant issues that abut on those perimeter walls. We need to recognize and respect differences among scholars who represent conflicting perspectives. For example, one of our founders, a natural scientist who designed and taught a course in critical incident analysis to honors undergraduates, limits his purview to destructive episodes, whether natural disasters (the San Francisco earthquake), colossal mistakes (the Exxon Valdez oil spill) or intentional acts (the Oklahoma City bombing). This distinguished professor argues forcefully and persuasively for a model of community disruption that reflects, in the aggregate, what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) defines in the individual: a diagnosable disorder of thought, feeling and function that can be studied and ameliorated. But other scholars, including several chapter authors of this Handbook, contend that positive occurrences, such as the first manned mission to the moon, (those 3 memorable steps on lunar soil and the view of Earth as a beautiful but vulnerable celestial orb), fit the definition of “critical incident” and should be included in our list of cases for contemplation. Good or bad, these advocates argue, an incident is critical when it attracts widespread attention, changes the way we think or act, and lives on in the collective consciousness.
Who Are We?
The NCCIA was started by our chairman emeritus, Frank Ochberg, M.D., who defined the “Stockholm Syndrome” to describe how some hostages reacted to a terrorist incident. The chair, Ford Rowan, is a former journalist at NBC and PBS, and an attorney who helped corporations in crisis management. The vice chair, Bert Brown, M.D., is a former head of the National Institutes of Mental Health. The director of research, Stephen Prior, Ph.D., is an expert in bioterrorism. Donald A. Bassett, M.S.C.M, is a former Air Force pilot, retired FBI Special Agent who co-founded and managed the FBI’s Special Weapons and Tactics and Crisis Management Programs. For biographical sketches of all directors, click here.
The NCCIA was designed to be an independent forum for analyzing critical incidents.
What Do We Study?
Members of the NCCIA have responded to and/or analyzed critical incidents such as the following: the Columbine school shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, Three Mile Island nuclear accident, suicide bombings in Israel, and the 9/11 attacks.
The NCCIA was founded by persons who had analyzed similar problems at the University of Virginia, as part of the Critical Incident Analysis Group. Members of the NCCIA worked on projects on bioterrorism (before the 2001 anthrax attacks) and alternatives to quarantine in a national health emergency. For a look at previous reports click here.
Where Do We Work?
We have a collaborative and productive relationship with several agencies, especially the NDU, in Washington, D.C. To visit the NDU website, click here. To visit the NDU Foundation, click here.
Most of the problems we study have implications that transcend the boundaries between various agencies and levels of government. For example, the response to a chemical, biological or nuclear attack would involve responders from local and state governments, as well as several federal agencies. Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense, the FBI and other intelligence agencies would all be involved. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary. So the NCCIA is not bound to any one agency.
When Do We Meet?
While our meetings are not open to the public, we plan to invite journalists to participate and to report on what we discuss. We are not dealing with classified information and we want to ensure that the public has access to useful information before and during any emergency.
Why Do We Do This?
Many agencies and think tanks focus on predicting potential terrorist threats and making risk assessments. The NCCIA is focusing on potential responses to various risks and how the response might be improved. We pay particular attention to the psychosocial and communication implications. We believe that prudent steps taken before an incident can mitigate damage.
There are two main ways that a society can withstand the threats posed by terrorists, home grown criminals and destructive natural dangers (including tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, drought). The first is by prediction prevention and timely mitigation before an incident. The second is by building more robust systems that can take a hit and recover quickly after an incident. Robust systems usually include redundancy and slack (for example, extra hospital beds for use in a crisis). By definition, robust systems involve inefficiencies. To minimize inefficiencies careful study needs to be done on how to best improve the resiliency of social systems.
While others are concentrating on the essential effort to prevent problems, the NCCIA is helping to find ways to strengthen society in case an emergency does happen.