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What Nurses Need to Know about Disaster Preparedness

Higher Education Articles October 27, 2013

Whether natural or man-made, disasters can lead to cataclysmic damage and devastation, but a nurse’s disaster preparedness can help the response effort and minimize loss of life. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is specifically prepared to address threats, provide resources and ensure local and national disaster plans are in place, and registered nurses, as first responders, need to be aware of these policies. Furthermore, the American Nurses Association (ANA) has resources and educational opportunities for nurses regarding disaster preparedness.

Non-Emergency Nurses

The American Nurses Association helps nurses personally and professionally prepare for disasters. This ensures disaster response is organized, unified and as well-choreographed as possible. However, while registered nurses are considered first responders, what do nurses in non-emergency roles do during times of disaster and mass casualty? Do non-emergency nurses have a legal, ethical or professional obligation to answer the call of duty? In the end, only the nurse can answer that question. Many non-emergency nurses become volunteer responders, and this was illustrated in catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

Individual Safety and Protection

There are gaps, however, in the nation’s disaster preparedness and response system. For example, if a nurse is forced into an untraditional role during a disaster, what are her physical, emotional and legal protections? In times of emergency and mass casualty, when events are unfolding quickly and chaotically, these types of questions are often forgotten. There are countless examples of nurses who did not respond to a disaster because they feared for their safety, or lacked adequate support for their families. In other words, while most nurses are compassionate, empathetic, and want to help during times of crisis, there are other things to consider, especially individual safety and legal protection.

The Importance of Training

According to the International Coalition for Mass Casualty Education, most nursing schools only devote roughly 4 hours of class time to disaster preparedness. Furthermore, the time devoted to disaster preparedness is supervised under controlled conditions. This type of training does not give nurses an accurate example of a mass casualty emergency, where supplies and resources are limited and they are forced to perform under stress. While nurses are an integral part of the disaster response plan, more comprehensive training and education is the key to future success.

From threats of terrorism and global pandemics to catastrophic weather events, people around the world are vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. Nurses represent the largest part of the healthcare workforce, so they need to be trained and ready for all types of disasters. At the same time, nurses also need to make sure their rights are protected. If a nurse’s well-being is at risk, then it only adds to the disaster.

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