What does Disaster Nursing Mean in Medical Terms?

Disaster response nurses are often the first responders in emergency situations ranging from mass shootings to natural disasters. These nurses play a role before, during, and after emergencies, working to prepare communities for potential disasters, saving lives during crisis situations, and following up with individuals or communities to provide support when an emergency situation or disaster has stabilized. 

In this blog post, we’ll answer the following questions: What does disaster response mean in medical terms, and what is a disaster response unit in a hospital? Keep reading to learn more about disaster response nursing, a career possibility for all registered nurses (RNs), which sometimes includes travel to domestic or international locations during emergencies. 

What Does Disaster Response Nursing Mean in Medical Terms? | Types of Disasters 

Disaster response nurses use their nursing skills in a variety of settings. They can work in their communities, helping prepare community members for potential disasters, or they can be deployed to support during disasters and other emergencies within the US or abroad. 

Disaster response nurses respond to a wide range of disasters, such as the following:


  • Natural or environmental disasters: Natural disasters include earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tsunamis, landslides, and droughts; environmental disasters include water pollution incidents, forest fires, and climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and intense heat waves.
  • Chemical disasters: Examples of these disasters include chemical spills from transport or storage facilities, releases from chemical plants or factories, and industrial accidents involving toxic chemicals.
  • Biological disasters: These are large-scale disasters among humans, animals, and plants, such as outbreaks of infectious diseases, pandemics, and bioterrorism attacks.
  • Radiological or nuclear disasters: Typically, these disasters occur near nuclear facilities and lead to large-scale releases of radioactivity.
  • Human-caused disasters: These include wars, mass shootings, etc.

As a registered nurse (RN), you’re trained to care for patients, perform physical exams and take patients’ histories, coordinate care with doctors and other healthcare team personnel, administer medication, communicate with patients’ family members and other loved ones, and provide other general support to individual patients or communities in a public health role. 


As a disaster response nurse, you will be one of the first responders in various emergency situations. In these settings, it’s all hands on deck. As a disaster response nurse, you may be required to set up temporary shelters, distribute food aid and water, or take on any other responsibilities that would make people feel comfortable and ensure their safety and wellness during disaster situations. This role can also include providing emotional and mental first-aid support. 

What Is a Disaster Response Unit in a Hospital?

Some hospitals respond to disasters through their emergency departments. As part of every hospital’s Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), there must be care standards that include conventional care (providing conventional care during stable phases), contingency care (when experiencing increased hospitalizations and demands on staff), and crisis care (when demands are so high that resources are insufficient). 


Unlike a disaster response unit, medical staff responding to emergencies outside their communities and in rural or under-resourced settings must be more agile. This is where an Emergency Response Unit (ERU) comes in—which is a standard package of supplies, equipment, and personnel that can be deployed at any moment to provide support during emergencies, typically during large-scale national or international emergencies. According to the Red Cross, an ERU can also include emergency clinics and hospitals. 


Emergency clinics provide initial emergency care to adults and children alike and include services such as triage, assessment, first aid, and care for minor trauma. An emergency hospital, on the other hand, provides additional services such as inpatient critical care and general surgery for trauma and is adequately equipped to respond to major medical conditions. Disaster response nurse responsibilities will differ, based on whether you’re working in an emergency clinic or emergency hospital.

Final Thoughts | What Does Disaster Response Mean in Medical Terms?

Working as a disaster response nurse certainly has its challenges. According to one study published by Dovepress, some disaster response nurses cite an inadequate level of preparedness and reference challenges with ethical issues on the job. Additionally, working as a disaster response nurse can be stressful, which may lead to burnout, and can also cause moral injury, which is psychological damage that occurs when someone is continually exposed to stressful or morally compromising situations. However, being a disaster response nurse can also be an enriching and rewarding experience as nurses are some of the first responders to support in emergency medical, health, and safety situations. Some disaster response nurses say that despite the challenges, they see the best of humanity when working in disaster situations. 

To learn more about disaster response nursing, check out Nursa’s comprehensive guide on disaster response nursing, which has more information on aspects of the role including how to become a disaster response nurse, how much disaster response nurses make, what disaster response nursing is like, how to be a good disaster response nurse, and more.

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