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Disaster Management & Response for Nurses

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Instructor: Maya Shapland

Maya has worked in the clinical, education, and management sections of healthcare for over 25 years and holds bachelor's degree in Speech and associate degree in Nursing.

Disasters can overwhelm a hospital's resources and staff and nurses are at the frontline of disaster response. Explore best practices in disaster management and response for nurses with a scenario that follows John, an emergency department nurse. Updated: 01/21/2022

Disaster: Overview

John is an emergency department nurse and disaster nurse specialist in a large urban hospital. Every moment that he goes to work for his night shift, he's aware that being prepared to meet a disaster challenge is a crucial part of his nursing practice.

Disasters come in many forms: chemical spills, tornadoes, earthquakes, influenza outbreaks, nuclear spills or attacks, fires, hurricanes, accidents involving motor vehicles or planes, and many more scenarios. The type of disaster and the severity will define the response level to the events.

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  • 0:04 Disaster Overview
  • 0:40 Managing Disaster
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Managing Disaster

Nurses are at the forefront of managing disasters in their communities and facilities. Knowing the cause and location of the disaster will help determine the appropriate response. Disasters are defined by an event or situation that overwhelms the capacity of a community to respond due to the magnitude of loss such as economic, environmental, loss of life, property, or infrastructure.

John has prepared himself to meet the demand of incidents that could occur by participating in training that the local emergency management professionals provided. Preparation of nurses for disasters involves formal training and practice during disaster drills to test skills and leadership abilities under pressure. Triage is the sorting out of patients to be seen based on level of injury. In disasters, the emphasis in triage changes from ordinary circumstances. Tools for preparation of a potential disaster include:

  • Education in disaster management (namely, life-saving skills such as CPR, first aid, and advanced trauma life support are critical classes for emergency nurses)
  • Triage training in disaster management
  • Familiarity with facility disaster plan (i.e., structure, staff roster, and forms for assignments)
  • Knowledge of the location of needed equipment and how to use it
  • Knowledge of personal protective equipment (i.e., gloves, gowns, masks, and PAPRS)
  • Teamwork is crucial to meet the needs of those involved in a disaster incident

Five blocks away from the ER, an explosion changes everything for John and the staff. Patients and families will be streaming into the ER, a high-level disaster is called hospital-wide for more clinical staff to assist.

Communication is top priority. Sending a clear, direct message and listening to the response is a process that can save lives, including your own. Keep all of those in your care informed and if you don't know something, it's alright to express that.

You will not be able to care for others well if you are in need of food or a bathroom break. Teamwork is all about helping one another and looking out for each other. If the staff is worn out and has had no food that could be a problem for safety.

There are several essential tools for responding in a disaster. They include things like the following:

  • Life-saving tools such as CPR or other advanced training for critical care of injured patients
  • A unit-specific disaster manual for resources and assignments
  • Leadership - Know who is in charge. Leadership is responsible for setting up a command center.
  • Be ready to give emotional support to patients who may not be able to process what has happened.
  • Know who to call in the community for back-up, for instance, public health, community social services, and Red Cross if needed.

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