What Nurses Need to Know About Disaster Preparedness

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Disasters and emergencies are bound to occur sooner or later in a nurse’s career. Nurses need to be prepared for the certainty that they will be involved in a crisis. Disaster preparedness education is vital to making sure those involved in a disaster can be treated properly, quickly, and at a high medical standard.

In many places, nursing professionals are required to know protocols and response practices, including legal guidelines. This preparedness is the first line of defense in controlling what is often a chaotic situation. Today’s unstable environmental and political climates have increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks or natural disasters like a hurricane. Even infectious diseases can reach epidemic proportions at an alarming rate.

Disasters by definition

One point of confusion is the difference between emergencies and disasters, according to the American Journal of Nursing. An emergency is an event handled by local resources such as a fire department. A disaster is a catastrophic occurrence that disrupts essential services like housing and communication, and requires outside aid. Disasters become a public health concern very quickly.

Disaster classifications

Disasters fall into at least five categories. Teaching nurses the classification of each defines the level of response necessary.

  • Natural
  • Chemical
  • Biological
  • Nuclear
  • Explosive

The first step in disaster preparedness is to become familiar with the variety of incidents and their standard contingencies.

Calls to action

When a crisis strikes, not all nurses will be eager to spring into action. Some might want to stay with their families or be hesitant to leave their current environment if they feel at risk. Disaster protocols differ from state to state. In some areas, the failure to act by nurses during a call to action is punishable. Others rely on nurses’ natural inclination to serve in a voluntary fashion. Nurse leaders and nurse educators must ensure that all nurses fully understand the legal elements of responding during a disaster.

Voluntary service

Preparations for mobilizing volunteers must be made before disaster strikes. After the disaster hits, panic and chaos will rule, so nurses should pick an agency and pre-register for service. The organization will help identify steps to take if a call to action is issued. Nurse leaders should spell out any rules regarding disaster response that may interfere with volunteering and might threaten job security.

Expectations for in-house response

Nurses need to understand how regular facility operations change during a disaster so they will know where to find the core competencies explaining the functioning and service line options. Many hospitals continue functioning as usual, with designated shelter locations and a triage center, but there may be interdepartmental modifications to cope with what might become a large surge of patients.

For example, elective surgeries may be canceled automatically to open suites up for emergency service. Such cutbacks make it necessary to consider how the special needs population, the elderly and those in incarceration will be affected. Chain of command is a crucial piece of information for everyone involved in emergency response. Typically, the Incident Command System has defined titles and roles for each agency. This includes designating incident commanders, safety officers and interagency liaisons.

Ethical issues

Knowledge of legal regulations may help nurses determine their comfort level with the jobs they may be asked to perform during a crisis. Nurses should be aware of the Nursing Scope and Standards.

Continuing education

Health care professionals should plan to expand their knowledge after graduation through continuing education, says the American Nurses Association. Formal classes and certification courses are available in disaster training. Most institutions provide nurses disaster preparedness as part of the curriculum, but many programs address it only briefly. Many nurses will have to actively seek training.

edited by Colin Seymour

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