A Nurse’s Responsibility in a Disaster: An Inside Look at Disaster Relief Nursing

Nurses play a key role in medical treatment during natural disasters. A nurse’s responsibility in a disaster includes caring for injuries and stabilizing patients. There’s much to consider before taking on a nurse’s role in disaster response. If it’s the path for you, the first step is earning your BSN.

Nurse reaching into back of emergency vehicle

Are you looking for a career where you can truly make a difference? Are you willing to come to the rescue when tragedy strikes? When a disaster strikes across the globe, we want to help any way we can. Many people will give money to relief organizations, donate needed items, or give blood. But nurses can offer more.

The nurses’ responsibility in a disaster is instrumental and lifechanging. Because of their healthcare background, they can stand on the front lines and provide care to those in need.

At Northeastern University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program, we equip students to graduate and take on bold, meaningful careers. Disaster relief nursing is the epitome of giving back to the community through nursing, and we are here to help get you there.

If you aspire to become a disaster relief nurse, take a look at what you can expect before you accept the challenge.

What Is a Nurse’s Role in Disaster Response?

Volunteering to be a disaster relief nurse can be a life-changing experience, but it’s also incredibly challenging. Let’s walk through a nurse’s responsibility in a disaster. What do these nurses actually do every day, and what kind of organizations employ them?

Roles and Responsibilities of Disaster Relief Nurses

A nurse’s role in emergency situations is primarily to provide care and treatment to victims of natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Emergency nursing duties include:

  • Examining patients
  • Caring for injuries
  • Stabilizing critical patients
  • Providing first aid and CPR
  • Giving IV fluids
  • Administering medications

Depending on the situation, you might end up treating patients in a healthcare facility or in the field. Volunteers should prepare for the possibility of working in primitive conditions. This may include having insufficient food, shelter, running water, supplies, or other essentials.

A disaster relief nurse needs to be ready for it all. This type of nursing is collaborative and physical. Many volunteers do additional tasks like distributing clothing, providing emotional support, or sweeping floors. In disaster response, nurses aren’t afraid to get dirty — literally.

Where Do Disaster Relief Nurses Work?

As a disaster relief nurse, you have two options. You could work full-time for organizations whose only mission is to assist in relief efforts, or you could help as a volunteer for a specific disaster.

For example, nurses can work full-time with a disaster relief team and travel to places where natural disasters have recently hit. However, if you prefer being home most of the time, you could also sign up to volunteer only when disaster strikes, such as during a major flood or hurricane.

Several organizations hire disaster relief nurses, so research the nursing opportunities available with each:

Federal Emergency Management Association

FEMA is a federal organization for the U.S. that has over 20,000 employees across the country. A part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA focuses on helping people affected by disasters.

National Disaster Medical System

The NDMS is a part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, providing medical treatment during natural and man-made disasters. States in need request NDMS’s assistance to provide workers, supplies, and other assistance.

The Medical Reserve Corps

MRC is a national network of over 200,000 volunteers organized under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Volunteers join local MRC units to help with health emergencies, disasters, and other community needs.

American Red Cross

American Red Cross is a nonprofit organization that provides aid and relief in several capacities. The organization facilitates blood donation, provides disaster relief, supports military service members, and gives international aid.

RN Response Network

RNRN is a part of the National Nurses United nursing union, and it is a volunteer program that sends nurses out during disasters and also promotes health in underserved areas.

Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals

The ESHR-VHP is an organization under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It pre-registers and verifies health professionals who are willing to aid in disasters and public health emergencies. This program allows volunteers to immediately step in during times of need.

two nurses rushing a patient on stretcher into a hospital

4 Things to Consider Before Taking the Job

Becoming a disaster relief nurse is not for everyone. It’s hard work that takes a lot of commitment and skill. Before you sign up for a nurse’s role in disaster response, think about the following considerations to see whether disaster response nursing is the right fit for you.

1. Your Endurance

This might seem like a no-brainer for nurses who already spend 12 hours on their feet. However, if you are new to nursing, think about if you are physically fit and healthy enough to survive the experience while also helping others.

Remember that relief work is physically exhausting, and dealing with the fatigue is part of a nurse’s role in emergency situations. In addition to working 12-hour days (or longer), you might not return to an air-conditioned or heated facility at the end of your shift. It is more likely that you will sleep on a cot in a room with others.

2. Your Family

Before volunteering, it’s important to make sure that both you and your family feel comfortable with the separation. Volunteers are away from their family for an extended period of time, and they often cannot easily contact family members during the service period.

Explain to your family why you’re volunteering, who you’ll be helping, and why you feel compelled to help. Make the decision with your spouse or significant other to ensure it’s the right call for your family.

3. Your Finances

Many disaster relief nursing roles are volunteer roles, and while these add value to your life and experiences, not everyone is in a financial place to take on volunteer work. Assess your finances and determine whether you can afford to take on a volunteer responsibility. Talk this through with your spouse or a trusted friend so you go forward with a clear direction.

4. Your Mental State

After seeing such extreme situations and suffering, it is not uncommon for volunteers to share the feelings of loss and overwhelm that disaster victims experience. Some nurses have a desire to fix all their patient’s problems.

However, it’s the nurse’s role in an emergency to focus on stabilizing rather than curing the patient. Before going into disaster response nursing, consider your personality and whether you can handle a nurse’s responsibility in a disaster to remain calm and level-headed amid tragedy.

How to Prepare Before Leaving Home

Disaster can strike at any minute. If you sign up to volunteer, you want to make sure you and your loved ones are prepared. Be sure to have the following in place prior to volunteering:

  • An Emergency Plan: Make sure that both your volunteer organization and your family have all the contact names and numbers they need in case something happens while you are serving.
  • Current Health Records: This one may seem like a no brainer, but don’t forget to update your immunizations and have a physical exam before you sign up. Falling ill is the last thing you’d want to happen while trying to help others.
  • A Survival Kit: Have a kit of supplies ready for back-up. The American Red Cross suggests you have: a flashlight, gallons of water (one gallon per person, per day), non-perishable food items, sanitation and hygiene items, first aid kit, blanket, maps of the area, and batteries.

How to Become a Disaster Relief Nurse

If you’re thinking this career path may be right for you, let’s unpack how to become a disaster relief nurse. It’s not as hard as you may think to get involved and give back when people need it most.

Earn Your BSN Degree

If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, it’s important to first earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. This will equip you with the knowledge and clinical education needed to practice as a professional nurse.

Aim to choose a program committed to community outreach and clinical preparation, like the ABSN program at Northeastern. This will ensure you become as qualified and skilled as possible before heading into emergency situations.

Choose the Best Nursing School - view of building outside

Learn more about what to look for in a nursing school and what makes Northeastern so special.

Pass the NCLEX, Get Licensed, and Start Getting Experience

Once you finish nursing school, you’ll need to take and pass the National Certification and Licensing Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This exam is necessary for practicing as a nurse. Once you do that, you’ll be able to consult your state’s department of health to get a nursing license.

Now you’re ready to get nursing experience. If your goal is disaster relief nursing, plan to get a few years of quality clinical experience at home before traveling. When you get out into the field, you want to make sure you are a competent nurse who knows what you’re doing. It’s helpful if you can work in an emergency room, trauma center, urgent care, or some other setting where you will learn emergency management and how to stabilize patients.

Apply for Disaster Relief Nursing Roles

Once you have some nursing experience, you can inquire about joining an organization for disaster relief. Research what opportunities are available in your state, and start by visiting the websites listed above to find a suitable role.

Once you join with an organization, you will likely go through training specific to emergency situations, basic life support, hazardous materials, and more. Eventually, after a few years of experience, you may also be able to attain certain relevant nursing certifications in disaster nursing.

If you want to get started with nursing in disaster relief, then the first step is to reach out about earning your BSN.

From Architecture to Disaster Relief Nursing: Ken’s Story

Sometimes people see a tragedy in action, and that’s what inspires them to pursue a disaster relief nursing career. That’s exactly what happened with Ken, a Northeastern University Accelerated BSN graduate.

Ken was studying interior architecture and design in New York City when a typhoon struck the Philippines. He dropped what he was doing and went there to help. That’s when he had an epiphany about his career goals.

I went there to help farm, but I really wanted to help with medical relief. I can’t really help people in developing nations with a degree in helping people’s houses look beautiful.

That defining moment inspired Ken to go back to school to become a nurse.

After completing the ABSN program at Northeastern, Ken started working in Boston. He now plans to travel and help communities in need as a nurse.

“I’ll continue to travel around the world and provide care to developing countries who need medical help — and continue saving the world,” he says.

Become a Nurse with a Global Focus

Our distinctive curriculum and approach to education and research is part of the reason Ken chose to become a nurse through Northeastern University.

Ken - Northeastern ABSN graduate

When I visited Northeastern University, I learned their mission is [for students] to be global citizens and that’s exactly what I was looking for in a school. I knew this was the best school to be in because we share the same vision: to work together to help people all over the world.

Ken found exactly what he was looking for at Northeastern University, and you can too. Do you have a desire to help others across the world when they need it most? If so, earning your BSN is the perfect first step.

Those with a previous non-nursing degree can apply to enter Northeastern’s ABSN program and graduate in as few as 16 months. We offer start dates for classes three times each year at our ABSN sites in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts.

To learn more about getting started with your new career, contact an admissions counselor today.

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