What is a crisis? Controversy about the meaning of the word 'crisis' in Polish legislation

By Piotr Matczak

The Millennium flood of 1997 in Poland triggered the reconstruction of the Polish crisis management system. The old system was closely linked to civil defence, and a military conflict was the reference point for a crisis response. In 2002, the Act on Disasters clarified responsibilities for action in case of an emergency, as the 1997 flood showed ambiguities in this respect. The Act shifted the reference risk into natural disasters mostly and defined natural catastrophes (katastrofa naturalna) as weather related events, seismic, fires, pests, infectious diseases of humans and animals, and others. Technical failure (awaria techniczna) was defined as a sudden, unforeseen damage or destruction of assets/built properties resulting in a break in use or property loss. Disasters (klęska żywiołowa) were defined as large scale catastrophes involving extraordinary measures and help from specialized institutions. The legislative framework for the new crisis management system was completed in 2007 by the Act on Crisis Management. The Act provides the definition of crisis (sytuacja kryzysowa): a crisis situation is understood as “a situation that has negative impact on the security of people, on property in considerable size, or on the environment, causing a significant reduction in the operation of the competent authorities of the public administration because of the inadequacy of the possessed power and resources”.

piotr_matczakThe definition of crisis stated in the Act involved a serious discussion. Initially, the definition of crisis included in the Act was based on the concept of “social ties”: “the crisis should be understood as being the consequence of the risks and consequently leading to the interruption or significant breach of social ties connected with serious disruption of the operation of public institutions, to such an extent that the used measures necessary to safeguard or restore security does not justify the introduction of any of the states of emergency”. This phrase was considered imprecise and ambiguous and the Act was referred to the constitutional court, which also questioned this definition of crisis. In the verdict it was stated that the notion of “breaking or significant impairment of social ties” as the condition of a crisis referred to a sociological concept, which was considered imprecise. As this notion is vague, eventually, it was argued, the conduct of the state institutions might lead to the possibility of using forces and resources in a way that undermines civil rights and liberties.

As the definition of crisis was recognized unconstitutional, a new concept was proposed. In the new

legislation that passed in 2009 the occurrence of a crisis depends on hazards that adversely affect the safety of people or the environment to such an extent that the activities of the relevant departments and local government are no longer sufficient. The amendment of the law changed the definition of the crisis in 2009. Thus the new formulation puts emphasis on the inability of the public authorities to cope with the consequences of an event.