Posted on October 19, 2017
Disaster Response Nursing
With all the unfortunate natural disasters that have been occurring around the world recently, disaster response nursing is becoming more important than ever. According to nursing disaster expert Tener Goodwin Veenema, PhD, MPH, MS, CPNP, “the incidence of national disasters has increased since 2004. In this country, one to two moderately large disasters now occur every week.”
Whether you have taken part in disaster response as a nurse or want to learn more about it, one thing is certain: the demand for disaster response nursing is growing and will continue to do so.
Where Disaster Response Nurses Work
Veenema defines a disaster as “any event where the demand exceeds the available resources.” This means disaster response nurses need to be equipped to handle all types of emergencies, including hurricanes, terrorist attacks, severe snowstorms and infectious disease outbreaks.
Regardless of the type of disaster, nurses play a significant role in helping care for those affected and keeping them safe. While some nurses work full time for organizations whose only mission is to assist in relief efforts, others volunteer when disaster strikes, such as in the recent natural disasters caused by the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas and the wildfires in California.
The Role of the Nurse in Disaster Response
Typically, nurses practice under controlled situations with numerous resources available to help them perform their jobs. However, in a disaster situation, nurses need to be able to perform under extremely stressful situations in poor conditions and with minimal resources.
The Journal of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses states that “some of the fundamental concepts of nursing can be applied to the disaster situation, such as caring, education, advocacy, treatment and prevention.” In particular, critical care nurses possess a unique skill set that equips them to be highly effective when working in disaster response. This skill set includes:
- A diverse knowledge base
- Strong assessment skills
- Deep commitment to public welfare
The role of a nurse in disaster response depends on the situation and, often, many functions outside of the usual scope of practice are involved. For instance, while these nurses utilize their clinical skills in disaster situations, they may also provide assistance with several other tasks, like sweeping floors, taking out garbage, distributing clothing or leading support groups.
A nurse’s specific roles will vary based on the extent of the disaster and the most immediate needs. Two common patient-facing roles include:
- Triage Practitioner – In this role, the nurse needs to assess and prioritize several victims quickly to ensure that resources are used appropriately and proper care is given to those who need it most immediately.
- Stress Management and Support – Those who experience disaster-related stress are often in need of psychological help once they have been stabilized. Nurses can provide education and emotional support to those in need following a disaster. They may screen children, disabled and elderly persons in order to identify their specific needs and determine the most appropriate help.
Disaster Response Nurses in the Field
Nurses need to be prepared to face anything and everything when working in disaster response. They may face any number of challenges, including:
- Primitive conditions
- Lack of running water
- Inadequate food and shelter
When ice storms affected the upper northeastern region of the United States in 1998, critical care nurses assisted by:
- Providing support to the local hospital
- Visiting shelters to assess needs
- Assisting the local fire department in assessing homes that were suspected to contain high levels of carbon monoxide
More recently, nurses volunteering in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria found themselves needing to stop people who hadn’t had access to drinking water for weeks from filling up containers with water from rivers or mountain streams. The unclean water could have caused bacterial diseases, including leptospirosis, so the nurses needed to teach people how to disinfect water before using it.
The Future of Disaster Response Nursing
Disaster response nurses are invaluable assets to all disaster response teams and their critical role will only continue to increase. Whether you choose to work for an organization and dedicate your career to full-time disaster response work, or volunteer your skills to help out during specific disaster situations, your expertise, compassion and dedication will be greatly needed and appreciated by those you serve.