Five Questions to Determine if an Interruption Is an Emergency

Every day we have many interruptions. That’s normal. It is important for us to be able to determine whether an interruption is a true emergency or a simple crisis.

Real emergencies need resolution immediately.

Not all crises are emergencies.

Several years ago, a frantic man called me in the middle of the night. I always like being startled awake while having a great dream. He had an emergency on his hands that only I could help him with. As he described the situation in graphic detail, I could see where it could be an emergency. But based on previous training, I began to ask some specific questions.

Ask Five Questions

1. Is anyone or anything in imminent danger? His answer was no.
(It is important to know if a person or property is in immediate danger.)

2. Is this the first time this has happened? Again, no.
(An emergency is most often not an ongoing issue.)

3. When did it happen the very first time? Two months ago.
(A longer time frame reduces the likelihood of it being an emergency.)

4. What have you done to attempt to solve the issue? He shared a couple of things and then remarked that he had done very little.
(Check out what efforts are underway to manage the issue.)

5. Can you meet me in my office at 10 o’clock in the morning? Yes, thank you so much! That would be great!
(If it can wait until later, it is not an emergency.)

Shocking Response

Thank you so much? Not the response you would’ve expected. He has an emergency. Something so troubling that he woke me up in the middle of the night. But he was thanking me? I didn’t answer his question or rush to his side. And his conversation with me ended with, “Thank you.”

We need to understand that not every crisis is an emergency. I could’ve dressed and rushed out to meet him face-to-face at that very moment. Yet, I would have only dealt with part of the problem. I asked questions first. Based on his responses, I determined that the issue was not an emergency.

The most important thing to him was being able to talk with me. By setting an appointment, he knew I would meet him at a set time and give him my full attention. That was what he needed.

Why 10 o’clock? Why not sooner?

I make it a habit of arriving at work 30 minutes early. I could’ve said, “I’ll meet you as soon as I get there,” but I didn’t. Why? By saying a specific time I gave him a definite moment that we would meet. I was also giving me extra time to discover more about the problem. I needed to focus on planning out a solution.

That time gave me the ability to think through the problem. I could consider what questions to ask. Also, I could decide what resources to point him toward. Then I thought about what people we may need to help develop a solution. Last, I slept so I could give him my best. Jumping up in the middle of the night would not have allowed for any of these four things.

At first, interruptions may seem like an out-of-control wildfire. An emergency demanding our immediate attention! But before rushing off to solve the issue, take a moment to ask the five questions we looked at.

If you verify an emergency, deal with immediately.

Most often, you are going to discover that it did not just happen. The crisis is something that has built over a period of time. It poses no danger in giving it a few more hours. Work has not stopped and lives are not in any immediate danger. It’s a delayed crisis reaction that needs resolution.

Schedule it. Give it a place on your calendar. It may be later that morning or it may have to be that afternoon.

Pre-define Terms

One thing that can help is to define terms ahead of time. What makes up a crisis? For each of us, our definitions will look a little different depending on our workplace.

Here’s a sample of a definition of an emergency and crisis using the Five Questions.

A true emergency is where imminent danger is present. It is the result of something that happened within the last few hours. It needs a solution immediately and cannot wait.

A crisis is where no one is in imminent danger. It is the result several events that happened over a longer period of time. Usually, there have been several attempts to bring about a resolution. Waiting a few more hours will not throw it into the emergency status.

Check out for more tips on investing in your time wisely.

Comment below to share ways you determine whether something is an emergency.