RN Responders: Understanding Disaster Nursing

The United States and its territories suffered a trio of devastating hurricanes between August and October this year, causing widespread damage, injuries and death. When tragedy strikes, often the first people mobilized to help in dangerous and deadly situations are nurses.

In Texas alone, the state’s Board of Nursing issued more than 600 temporary licenses to out-of-state nurses from Aug. 26 through Sept. 1 as many traveled from around the country to assist in the relief efforts at hospitals and shelters. In an update, the nursing board said Texas code allows nurses from other states to continue to practice in Texas for the purpose of providing aid as long as their current licenses remain in good standing.

Disaster nursing is important to society, as nurses help overwhelmed hospitals and shelters care for victims in the wake of tragedies and disasters.

Types of Disasters

The United Nations defines “disaster” as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.”

Most disasters fall into two categories: natural and man-made.

Natural disasters are naturally occurring events. These types of disasters are:

  • Geophysical (earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis)
  • Hydrological (avalanches, floods)
  • Climatological (extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires)
  • Meteorological (cyclones, storms/wave surges)
  • Biological (disease epidemics, insect/animal plagues)

Man-made disasters are caused by humans and typically result in the destruction of property, displaced populations and death. Examples include:

  • War
  • Industrial accidents
  • Famine
  • Transport crashes

Disaster Management Cycle

In any disaster, nurses play a critical role in coordinating and implementing a response plan. There are four stages in the disaster management cycle, according to the Global Development Research Center (GDRC).


This stage involves minimizing the effects of a disaster. It may include preventative measures, such as improving building codes so structures can better survive an earthquake or improving public awareness of disaster scenarios in order to decrease all possible negative outcomes. For nurses, this may mean staying educated on basic aid functions, such as CPR and assessing injuries.


This is also something that can be done ahead of time, such as developing a disaster response plan. For example, nurses can conduct training and exercises for responding to disasters and mobilizing to a disaster zone.


The goal of emergency response is to provide “immediate assistance to maintain life, improve health and support the morale of the affected population,” according to the GDRC. Nurses may be among the first responders and coordinate rapid-needs assessments or risk communications. The focus lies on meeting the basic needs of those who are affected before more permanent and sustainable solutions can be implemented. Humanitarian aid organizations are often present at this phase.


Once a disaster is under control, the affected population can begin rebuilding their communities and lives. Humanitarian organizations often continue to provide aid, but there’s no clearly defined point at which immediate relief transitions into recovery and long-term sustainable development. Nurses can help in conducting community assessments to ascertain where people need help the most, as well as to provide psychological support once the immediate physical wounds are alleviated.

Disaster Nursing in Action

There are a number of ways in which nurses can take part in disaster relief efforts.

Career opportunities are available for nurses in a community health setting. Nurses can also use their skills in times of disaster by volunteering with various organizations, such as the American Red Cross, U.S. Medical Reserve Corps and RN Response Network.

Your Nursing Education

Alvernia University’s online RN to BSN can help nurses further their education and broaden their career options. The program takes place in a convenient online learning environment that accommodates students’ work and personal schedules.

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