What Is Disaster Response Nursing Like?

What Is Disaster Response Nursing Like?

Disaster response nursing involves carrying out vital roles during emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, other natural disasters, mass shootings, global pandemics, and humanitarian situations, amongst others. 

In this blog post, we'll cover everything you need to know about the role of disaster nurses and what this specialty is like, from the day-to-day duties these nurses are expected to carry out to first-hand experiences from nurses working in emergency situations.


Day-to-Day Roles of Disaster Nurses

On a day-to-day basis, as a disaster nurse, your role may involve a combination of the following tasks: 

  • Assisting with relief efforts during natural and human-made disasters and emergencies, which may include volunteering or working for disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Delivering first aid, performing mental and physical health assessments, and monitoring the health needs of individuals and communities 
  • Supporting both the physical and emotional needs of victims and survivors
  • Preparing others for emergencies, which includes developing an emergency plan and supplies
  • Contributing to disaster preparedness plans and protocols
  • Educating community members on how to navigate a disaster safely and alleviating fear


Challenges and Rewards in Disaster Response Nursing

With disaster response nursing, the stakes are high. In emergencies, it's essential to think quickly and respond quickly during crises. Often these situations are "all hands on deck," which may see nurses working alongside medics, managers, volunteers, search-and-rescue committees, and community members. While disaster response nurses face numerous challenges in this high-pressure environment, the rewards are also plentiful. 

Challenges in disaster response nursing include the following:

  • Difficult or unstable living conditions, such as having to work in an environment with a high risk of earthquakes, flooding, or other dangers
  • Limited resources, such as medical equipment and supplies, and potentially inconsistent electricity and water supplies
  • Facing difficult ethical decisions, such as which victims to provide support for when medical and personnel resources are few
  • Facing mentally and emotionally difficult situations which may lead to stress, negative mental health impacts for nurses, or burnout 
  • If volunteering, disaster nurses can experience financial difficulties 

At the same time, here are some rewards of disaster response nursing:

  • The satisfaction of providing direct care for those in critical need
  • Empowering communities affected by disasters to better prepare and handle emergencies by educating them on disaster management
  • Interacting with diverse groups of people in various settings—as travel may be involved
  • Working and learning from a wide variety of tasks and challenges—as every day is likely to be different when you work as a disaster response nurse

Personal Recounts from Disaster Response Nurses

One Reddit user took to the forum to share a quick guide with other nurses on how they can support people in or fleeing Ukraine. Here is what they had to say:

"It's direct patient care to those who need it the most. There's little or no management there breathing down your neck, just people who need help and you helping them. There is very little charting, and no time for interpersonal drama." - RebelliousPlatypus

Numerous humanitarian organizations, such as Save the Children, work with nurses in emergency settings. Clare O'Neill, an emergency health unit nurse working with the organization in South Sudan, had the following to say about her experiences:

"I've quickly learned that the biggest challenges of looking after patients in this environment hardly ever stem from the initial problem—in this case their burns. Those burns are initially shocking, and of course distressing and painful for the patients, but it's the other factors that make patient care more difficult. Without basic supplies, more complex problems arise, and patients suffer for no reason. 

It's often the simple things [which are missing] such as water. Patients who have lost the top layer of their skin need to be washed with warm water, because cleaning with cold water is torturous, despite the baking heat outside. But sporadic power failures sometimes mean that we don't have access to warm water." - Clare O'Neill, emergency health unit nurse

One Reddit user who has worked through hurricanes shared the behind-the-scenes of what this looks like for nurses and shared a few tips as well on how to handle these difficult settings. 

"I've been through two bad hurricanes on Team A (Tampa). The hospital is a ghost town during the storm. Be prepared for chaos once it passes. You will get a lot of clean up injuries, people who need dialysis, oxygen dependent pts who don't have electricity or back up tanks, plus people who don't have AC and no place to go. Nursing homes will start sending you residents if they don't have electricity. 

Be sure to get some rest and stay hydrated during the downtime. Make sure you have a lot of water and snacks. You never know how long you will be there." - SonofTreehorn

To learn more about disaster nursing, read Nursa's complete guide on disaster nursing, which includes information on how to become a disaster response nurse, average salaries, and more.

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