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Disaster Nursing and Emergency Preparedness: The Role of Nurses in Saving Lives

EMTs load a patient on a helicopter

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Natural disasters have become commonplace in certain regions of the country. Florida, for example, routinely makes headlines, as it is experienced in dealing with seasonal hurricanes, flooding, and storms. In some cases, these disasters can have the compounding effect of causing injury, and in extreme cases death, while also placing a strain on clinical-care infrastructures.

Because of these conditions, places such as Florida have a high demand for disaster nursing and emergency preparedness. They need nursing professionals who can provide first aid, serve as a first line of triage for those who need additional care and ensure that regular hospital operations continue.

Fires, floods and storms remain a sad reality of life. Formal training in disaster nursing and emergency preparedness can teach nursing professionals how to provide clinical leadership and patient care under duress.

The Role of Nurses in Emergency Preparedness

The harm caused by natural disasters can include not only injuries and fatalities but also damage to hospitals and clinical-care facilities, power stations, and water and utility services. Following a natural disaster, such as one of Florida’s hurricanes, patients may require critical care despite compromised infrastructure. For example, in 2018, Hurricane Michael caused damage that left many without power for weeks, even months. In total, there were $25 billion in damages, 16 direct fatalities and 43 indirect fatalities.

How Disaster Nurses Help

Many states have imposed laws that require licensed nurses to serve as first responders in emergency situations. (Florida law requires that licensed medical professionals who wish to provide emergency first aid do so free of charge and under the auspices of an organization such as the American Red Cross.) Natural disasters constitute “all hands-on deck” scenarios, when everyone with clinical training is needed to provide first aid to the injured. Organizations such as the American Red Cross and International Medical Corps also play a significant role coordinating and deploying emergency care providers to assist with medical needs.

In states where nurses are not required to provide emergency first aid, they often choose to do so. It is common in natural disasters for nurses to volunteer their time and expertise to treat patients or to offer support for physicians and other nurses who are on call.

The Stages of Disaster Nursing

Nurses, the largest group of healthcare professionals, are usually at the forefront of disasters. The multifaceted work of disaster nursing requires the intervention of skilled nursing professionals at several different stages:

  • Nurses are often needed at the initial rescue and in the immediate aftermath, providing expedient diagnoses and administering first aid to injured survivors.
  • Survivors facing more extreme injuries may need to be monitored closely for extended periods of time. Nurses may be needed in hospitals or shelters to ensure these patients receive ongoing care.
  • Finally, nurses play an important role in restoring a sense of normalcy, not just to individuals but to communities as a whole. This might mean helping to ensure that normal hospital and clinic operations can commence as quickly as possible despite damaged infrastructure.

The Effect of Natural Disasters in Hospital Care

Natural disasters can have a significant impact not only on the lives of patients but also on everyday hospital operations. Natural disasters can overwhelm hospital systems. In the aftermath of disasters hospital systems face an increase in medical needs and occupancy rates with a decreased supply of resources, and potential infrastructure limitations due to physical damage or limited access to essential services like electricity and water supply. Healthcare workers, especially nurses, are susceptible to these physical and emotional stressors in addition to potential increased workload. These challenges may lead to an inability to provide optimal patient care. Nevertheless, nurses play a huge role before, during and after disasters. They volunteer their time in relief efforts and strive to provide the best care despite the most austere circumstances. They work in uncontrolled physical environments with limited resources and maximize their resources to provide the best care possible.

Patient Care

Natural disasters can significantly increase the number of patients a hospital must serve. Hospitals see a number of emergency room cases and other patients on a daily basis, but a natural disaster can overwhelm them with additional patients who need immediate care, putting a strain on resources and staffing. According to a 2018 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, hospitals may see their admission numbers swell by hundreds of patients, most of whom need urgent care.


Due to the threat of flooding and intense storms, hospital facilities must sometimes be evacuated, with patients relocated to receive necessary care. Nurses must communicate clearly and coordinate care, keeping track of patient records while maintaining compliance with privacy laws. In these high-pressure situations, it’s important to have nurses who can offer care while also exhibiting leadership in disaster nursing and emergency preparedness.

Occupancy Rates and Stress Levels in Disaster Nursing

Providing clinical care in the midst of a natural disaster while also contending with compromised facilities and overwhelming patient volume can be stressful. These scenarios aren’t just taxing to patients but also potentially traumatic to providers who are administering care. Nurses may also be dealing with personal crises, including injuries to loved ones and property loss. In addition, nurses are subject to social pressures from a public that expects nurses to respond to their needs in times of emergencies or illnesses. Ethical choices are also an important component of disaster planning and preparedness. The public assumption of the nurse’s duty to care sometimes ignores the ethical duty of nurses to care for themselves. In the case of a pandemic, nurses are also at high risk for acquiring illness and worry about bringing infectious diseases back to their own families. Unsurprisingly, a survey conducted by NYU researchers found that some nurses report sleeping difficulties and disturbing thoughts in the wake of natural disasters, as shared in a Daily Nurse article.

The researchers highlight the importance of social support among co-workers and hospital leaders in high-stress times, as well as the value of training in disaster nursing and emergency preparedness, which can give nurses the tools they need to remain stalwart even in hectic scenarios.

Find Training in Disaster Nursing and Emergency Preparedness

The first step toward efficacy in emergency situations is to develop the right clinical frameworks and leadership qualities, all of which can be honed through pursuing one of the University of Central Florida’s online healthcare degrees. These programs equip nurses with the skills that can make them invaluable in times of crisis. Learn more about our programs and start down a rewarding career path in disaster nursing and emergency preparedness.