Engineering Incidents – Types and Classifications


An engineering incident is a major error, outage, or failure of an engineered structure or system which results in severe harm to people, their surroundings, and/or the environment:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - 2010[1]

Structural or systems disasters occur, because like humans, technology too is evolving and it is not infallible. The primary causes of these disasters are usually considered to be:

  • human factors (including both 'ethical' failure and accidents);
  • design flaws (many of which are also the result of unethical practices);
  • materials failures;
  • extreme conditions or environments;
  • and most commonly and importantly - a combinations of these reasons.
Downed Power Lines[8]

Infrastructure typically refers to the technical structures that support a society, such as roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and so forth.

Critical infrastructures are the mainstay of the U.S. economy, security and health. These infrastructures are interdependent.  For example, the electrical power system depends on the delivery of fuels to power generating stations through transportation services, the production of those fuels depends in turn on the use of electrical power, and those fuels are needed by the transportation services.[2]

Infrastructure incidents refers to failures, outages, and/or errors in these systems (communication, electrical, power, utility, water, cyber-security). Power outages are the most serious and cause other infrastructure systems to fail.

Power Outages

Power outages are common in some areas and can be cause by a variety of events, including hurricanes, summer storms, high winds, winter storms, falling trees, traffic accidents, even small animals crawling in to transformers at transmission substations. While most outages last just a short while, outages can last more than a week in some cases.[3]

Extended power outages during extremely hot or extremely cold weather are serious concerns for individuals with special needs or for those who rely on life support devices requiring electricity, such as respirators or ventilators.[4]

For more information - read: FEMA - Going Off Grid: Utility Outages (PDF)

Worst U.S. Power Outage
The biggest Blackout in U.S. history occurred on August 14, 2003, leaving roughly 50 million people without power. Blackouts can happen anywhere, and to anyone, so being prepared is important.[5]

The Smart Grid

When a power outage occurs, Smart Grid technologies will detect and isolate the outages, containing them before they become large-scale blackouts. The new technologies will also help ensure that electricity recovery resumes quickly and strategically after an emergency—routing electricity to emergency services first, for example. In addition, the Smart Grid will take greater advantage of customer-owned power generators to produce power when it is not available from utilities. By combining these "distributed generation" resources, a community could keep its health center, police department, traffic lights, phone system, and grocery store operating during emergencies.[6]

Communications Outages

If there is a power outage during an emergency, your wireline phone, wireless device or VoIP service may not work unless you have a back-up power supply. If you suffer only an electrical power outage, you should still be able to use a traditional wireline (but not cordless) telephone, because electrical and telephone transmissions use different circuits or wires and telephone company facilities have back-up power available. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone or other device fully charged, these devices should also continue working during a power outage.[7]

Railroad Incident Miriam, Nevada - 2011[10]

Transportation incidents are those involving any of the various modes of transportation (e.g., highways, waterways, railways, and airways). Such accidents could occur at any time and any place, and often involve multiple injuries and/or deaths.

Should a major transportation accident occur, many decisions regarding the appropriate emergency actions to take will have to be made "on-the-spot" based on the situation. For instance, are hazardous materials involved and/or are there casualties? Is there a need to evacuate? Is there damage to the facility itself and/or are the utilities functioning? Take the appropriate protective actions for a specific hazard (i.e., fire, hazardous materials, explosions, utility failure, etc.).[9]



  1. Image Source: [Accessed: April 5, 2014]
  2. National Science Foundation – Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Processes and Systems (RIPS):
  3. – Emergency Management Agency – Power Outages:
  4. – Power Outages:
  5. – Blackouts:
  6. The Smart Grid – What is the Smart Grid?:
  7. FCC – Emergency Communications – Network and Power Outages:
  8. Image Source: [Accessed: April 5, 2014]
  9. National Park Service – Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management & Response:
  10. Image Source: [Accessed: April 5, 2014]