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What Is Disaster Nursing?

Natural disasters are common throughout the United States, and there is the possibility that a more volatile climate will only further increase their frequency. Beyond hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, other incidents like mass shootings, chemical spills and mass transit accidents require the nation to have a coordinated disaster preparedness and response plan to quickly supply care to impacted areas. Viral outbreaks, including COVID-19 and Zika, also trigger disaster protocols as they pose a significant threat to public health.

With nearly four million registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S., according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), nurses are a critical asset to disaster planning and response initiatives. Their unique skill sets are ideal for helping those affected by a disaster as are their abilities "to organize … prepare their families in advance … and communicate across disciplines," says the Society for the Advancement of Disaster Nursing.

How Do Nurses Help During Disasters?

Nurses primarily provide acute patient care during disasters, helping to treat the sick and injured and ensure access to basic healthcare services. They may also:  

  • Triage patients
  • Evacuate or transfer patients to another unit or facility
  • Communicate with patients, volunteers and healthcare workers
  • Coordinate activities with outside agencies and volunteers

Does Disaster Nursing Require Specific Skills?

Disasters require nurses to navigate chaotic environments, often in makeshift facilities and with limited technology and medical supplies. Impacted areas may not have power or running water. Residents are likely scared and traumatized, so they can behave erratically and need tremendous emotional support.

Nurses must have physical stamina, be able to work long hours in crude conditions and have well-developed clinical and interpersonal communication skills. They benefit from having leadership skills and an understanding of community healthcare. An RN to BSN online program offers dedicated coursework in these topics as well as an elective course in transcultural care that is perfect for nurses who are expecting to work in different geographic areas.

How Can Nurses Become Involved in Disaster Response?

While disaster nursing may seem like something nurses can contribute to at the last minute, preparation and planning is key. "The role of a disaster nurse begins long before catastrophic events even occur," the website Trusted Health says. Nurses must first align with disaster planning agencies, such as the American Red Cross. This allows the agencies to assess nurses' skills and interests and assign them to response teams accordingly.

In an interview with, Kathi Harvey, DNP, FNP-BC, NHDP-BC, APRN, a certified National Healthcare Disaster Professional who assisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, says, "There's nothing haphazard about an emergency response. Teams are in place and ready to act. Everyone on the team has been trained and prepared to provide care in some of the worst imaginable situations."

Most healthcare facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, have their own internal disaster planning and response teams that nurses can join. Although some employers send nursing teams out into the community during disasters, other teams will be tasked with maintaining continuity of care for the patients at the facility.

Cities, counties and states may have disaster response teams too. Nurses are encouraged to inquire about these opportunities as well as look into the needs of some of the larger disaster planning and preparedness agencies, like the:

While disasters can be unexpected, nurses can prepare in advance to be part of the solution. By deepening their understanding of community health, honing their clinical skills and partnering with their employer or a disaster response agency, nurses will be ready to respond during times of greatest need.

Learn more about University of North Carolina Wilmington's RN to BSN online program.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Nursing Fact Sheet

American Red Cross: Become a Volunteer

National Nurses United: RNRN Disaster Nursing Key to Emergency Care During and After Hurricanes

Public Health Emergency: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: National Disaster Medical System

Society for the Advancement of Disaster Nursing: About

Trusted Health: What Is Disaster Nursing?

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