Disaster Preparedness Nurse Career Profile

Disaster preparedness has attained a higher level of importance in this country. Properly trained nurses help ensure that in any type of disaster, a community will have organized and effective emergency medical care. Nurses have always played an important role in disaster response, be it a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or an intentional attack like those on Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center. Disaster response nurses are there, offering triage, working with physicians, providing leadership, emotional support, and making decisions.

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Disaster response nurses need to be prepared to deal with potential biohazards that they don’t see in hospitals or clinics, such as anthrax, plagues, or smallpox. They need to be prepared for mass casualties, and know how to set up emergency shelters and treat large numbers of injured persons in situations where medical facilities or equipment are not readily available. Some duties of a disaster nurse include giving medical care in adverse situations, receiving patients, staging temporary medical facilities, and preparing patients to be evacuated. Earthquakes, hurricanes, bioterrorism, nuclear, or chemical attacks are all scenarios that would require the immediate help of vast numbers of prepared emergency teams, including nurses.

Many nurses in various specialties are trained to some extent to providing care in a disaster. However some nurses are specifically focused on disaster nursing. Civilian registered nurses who have received disaster response training can be part of a volunteer community disaster response team. Many nurses are also part teams who are deployed to sites of disasters to help the local emergency teams deal with the magnitude of large emergency situations. This includes the Red Cross Disaster Assistance Teams (DAT) and the Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT). These are teams that can be dispatched anywhere in the nation in any kind of disaster that overwhelms the local emergency teams. Nationally, there are also nurses employed by the U.S. Public Health Service Nurse Corp and the U.S. Military Nurse Corps.

Ideal qualities in a disaster nurse include commitment, flexibility, preparation, calm under duress, and strong preparation skills. Becoming a disaster response nurse begins with becoming a registered nurse. Whether you are an RN with an associate degree in nursing (ASN) or you earn your bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), or are a specialty nurse with an advanced degree, you can join a disaster response team with extra disaster medicine and management training. Disaster medicine and management training courses are offered in many undergraduate nursing programs as well as in graduate programs. Certification and training is very important for disaster response nurses, because organized response efforts are integral to a disaster response team’s success in an emergency situation. There are standardized response systems in place, and all disaster nurses need to be aware of them for the operation to run smoothly in a high stress and possibly dangerous time. There are also graduate and doctoral educational nursing programs covering emergency preparedness and disaster response at major nursing schools.

Experience in emergency or critical nursing is very helpful, though not required. Certification or experience in certain sub-specialties is also an asset, such as pediatrics, obstetrics, or intensive care. Cardiac Life Support certification is also extremely important for the disaster nurse. If you are a registered nurse or studying nursing and are interested in joining a disaster response team, get started now by finishing or advancing your nursing degree and pursuing specific disaster nursing courses. If national security is a concern for you or you are moved by the plight resulting from recent natural disasters, you too, can be part of a dedicated disaster response team and be part of the solution. It is a job that is usually a volunteer position and one that requires commitment and preparedness, but the personal rewards can be high.
(Sources: Community/public health nursing practice: health for families and populations By Frances A. Maurer, Claudia M. Smith, Emory University, “Prepared for the Worst” by Valerie Gregg, United States Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, United States Department of Health and Human Sevices)