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Unsung heroes: The vital role of nurses in disaster response and emergency care

Unsung heroes: The vital role of nurses in disaster response and emergency care
  • PublishedSeptember 8, 2023

When disaster strikes and chaos follows, a group of individuals step forward as unsung heroes, providing crucial care and support to those who require it most. Amidst these ranks, nurses take center stage, playing an indispensable role in disaster response and emergency care. This article extensively explores the intricate duties of nurses during times of crisis, highlighting their unwavering dedication, skills, and the critical contributions they make to ensure the well-being of communities in turmoil.

Acting as the first line of defense

From tornadoes to wildfires, earthquakes, pandemics, or human-made disasters, whatever the case, these situations test the most skilled medical professional. And when such events occur, nurses transcend beyond the boundaries of a hospital to serve as one of the first lines of defense, either as a makeshift triage unit or part of a response team.

Nurses from several specializations play a crucial role in aiding communities to recover from the impact of natural disasters, pandemics, and human-made issues like terrorism. They view their roles in disaster response as part of their professional commitment to providing compassionate, skilled, and ethical care to patients and communities.

Providing emergency care following a disaster offers different challenges to a clinical setting. As such, aspiring disaster recovery nurses opt for advanced educational programs, such as MSN FNP programs online. These programs are instrumental in equipping nurses with the comprehensive skill set required to handle critical situations on the front lines of healthcare crises. In addition, Online Master of Science in Nursing programs offer the flexibility to advance your nursing career while maintaining your current commitments and schedule.

Role of nurses

Nurses exhibit a unique blend of expertise, compassion, and unwavering commitment, making them indispensable assets for various emergency scenarios. Their contributions span far beyond traditional healthcare, encompassing rapid decision-making, adept coordination, and providing holistic care amidst chaos. This section explores the multifaceted role that nurses play in disaster response.

Rapid responders

Nurses provide immediate and effective medical care and support for people affected by emergencies. These rapid response nurses are trained to quickly access and respond to emergencies, using their clinical skills and knowledge to prevent deaths and other medical complications. Under certain circumstances, nurses also serve as part of a multidisciplinary team alongside emergency personnel, community organizations, healthcare providers, and other healthcare team members.

Across the healthcare spectrum, nurses are the first and, sometimes, only primary care contact. This is also the case in disaster situations, as nurses remain pivotal in safeguarding the public during and after disasters and public emergencies. The responsibilities of nurses as rapid responders include educating and protecting people, engaging with and building trust with the community, and fostering resilience to help communities recover fully.

But why have nurses evolved to become ideal healthcare professionals for rapid responses? Nursesā€™ roles in disaster response are achievable due to their versatility in handling a spectrum of medical situations. They are trained to provide psychological support and counseling to patients, families, and communities affected by the disaster. Furthermore, they can educate and protect the public from the potential health risks and hazards of disasters.Ā 

The unpredictability and dynamic nature of disasters result in various injuries and illnesses, ranging from minor to life-threatening. Consequently, the significance of swift responsiveness cannot be emphasized enough, and nurses vividly demonstrate their exceptional adaptability by effectively addressing the varied medical requirements of disasters.

Triage and prioritization

Triage is another significant versatility nurses exhibit in handling a spectrum of medical situations. This process involves determining the care package for a patient based on the nature and severity of their condition. There are several benefits to triage and prioritization in a disaster setting; however, its primary aim is to optimize care and make the best use of resources in emergency scenarios.

Triage after a disaster is not a single processing step; instead, it highlights all aspects of the response, including on-site rescue, evacuation, medical care, decontamination, and so on. This makes it a dynamic process that requires careful consideration of various factors, such as the extent of injuries, vital signs, and pre-existing medical conditions. Nonetheless, nurses remain level-headed and composed amidst the overwhelming demands of disaster scenes, constantly reassessing patientsā€™ needs and adjusting priorities as the situation evolves.

Nurses work to provide the greatest good for the most significant number of patients by identifying those with life-threatening conditions and the best chance of surviving. With triage, nurses can also avoid wasting resources on those who are too severely injured or mildly injured to benefit from immediate care.

These professionals also use different triage systems depending on the emergency’s type, scale, and context. Some standard systems include Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START), Sort, Assess, Life-saving interventions, Treatment and/ or transport (SALT), Simple Major Incident Medical Management and Support Triage (SMART). With these systems, the decisions of emergency response nurses are guided by ethical principles and criteria that are content-specific and evidence-based.

Provision psychological first aid

Disasters are a significant source of psychological problems, with victims displaying varying reactions to traumatic events. In communities affected by disasters and traumatic experiences, mental health problems are more substantial, thus highlighting the need for psychological first aid among victims.

As first responders to disasters, nurses must care for people with different levels and types of trauma, from depression to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are well-prepared skill-wise to provide a comforting presence and appropriate psychological support for victims. The psychological first aid process may include relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, guidance on managing mental health symptoms, and other strategies that help individuals cope with distressing situations.

By delivering immediate emotional support and validation, promoting coping strategies, encouraging social support, reducing long-term psychological impact, and encouraging adaptive thinking, nurses can employ psychological first aid in fostering resilience among disaster victims.

Aside from victims, anticipated stress is also an inherent risk associated with disaster responders due to the traumatic occurrences of disasters. Nurses become exposed to survivorsā€™ experiences in-depth, thus amplifying their exposure to stress. Therefore, nurses can provide self-aid by implementing individual stress management planning.

Collaboration and coordination

As the name suggests, emergency care during disaster response requires quick action to improve the outcomes and well-being of affected individuals. For example, the ā€œgolden hourā€ concept underscores the importance of rapid medical intervention within 60 minutes after a traumatic injury. During this period, a quick response can significantly prevent complications, minimize damage, and increase the chances of survival.

However, communication, information sharing, and collaboration are crucial elements for rapid response in an emergency scenario. Nurses are central in bridging the gap between medical and emergency response teams during disaster scenarios by working as liaisons, coordinators, and communicators. Their unique position as medical professionals and rapid responders facilitates interdisciplinary communication, team coordination, effective resource allocation, care continuity, information dissemination, and triage management.

By fulfilling their core functions as adept communicators, coordinators, and advocates for patients, nurses cultivate a collaborative and well-structured methodology for disaster management. This, in turn, elevates patient outcomes and significantly bolsters the overall efficacy of disaster response endeavors.

Prevalent disaster organizations for nurses

Numerous nonprofit organizations extend opportunities for nurses to volunteer to help disaster victims. Among the most prominent of these organizations are well-established entities such as the American Red Cross and the RN Response Network

American Red Cross

The Red Cross boasts an extensive volunteer network comprising over 15,000 nurses and nursing students across the United States, each poised to spring into action immediately. Beyond their rapid response to disasters, these professionals undergo training to fulfill roles that extend to their local communities and contribute to the organization.

Alongside these local commitments, nurses affiliated with the Red Cross demonstrate a readiness to serve in distant locations if needed. Furthermore, Red Cross nurses also support the American armed forces in various capacities.

RN Response Network

The RN Response Network (RNRN) also features a group of devoted nurse volunteers. Following Hurricane Katrina and Rita, which uncovered critical deficiencies in the nationā€™s disaster response framework, the RNRN was established to improve the nationā€™s preparedness for disasters. RNRN encompasses several nurses across different regions in the United States.

Much like the Red Cross, nurses in the RN Response Network quickly mobilize to disaster sites to provide vital assistance precisely where it is most needed. Since its inception in 2005, RNRN has responded to several high-profile emergencies, including the Haiti earthquake, Japanā€™s earthquake and tsunami, and the Philippinesā€™ typhoon-induced flooding.

Other similar organizations include Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps, Team Rubicon, and several other local disaster response agencies.

Adaptability in diversity

Emergencies rarely adhere to a predictable script. From natural calamities to unforeseen fallouts, the challenges faced are as diverse as they are daunting. However, in these chaotic and uncertain moments, one skill emerges as a solution; adaptability.

The ability to adapt amidst adversity proves to be the cornerstone of effective disaster management and emergency care. And as the first line of defense in such scenarios, nurses must show adaptability in high-pressure situations to provide responsive and resilient strategies that foster recovery.

The first element of adaptability is tailoring skills to suit unique disaster scenarios. This requires nurses to understand the situation and provide care that addresses these emergencies. To effectively tailor skills, nurses must learn about the different disaster types and their impacts on health. This includes natural, environmental, chemical, biological, nuclear, and explosive incidents.

Disaster preparedness and response training are also crucial to develop adaptability. These programs equip nurses with the essential knowledge, skills, and tools to navigate the intricate challenges of disaster scenarios. Additionally, these training initiatives go beyond clinical expertise, encompassing psychological first aid, cultural sensitivity, and effective communication strategies.

These trainings also feature a structured pathway. For instance, they must conform to the International Council of Nurses (ICN) framework of core competencies in disaster nursing. This framework covers four domains: professional values and ethics, disaster management, clinical practice, and leadership. The ICN framework improves adaptability by enforcing comprehensive skill development, versatility, ethical grounding, and leadership abilities necessary to respond effectively to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of disaster situations.

Enhancing nurse-led disaster care

While nurses remain a mainstay on the frontlines of disaster response, current research reveals low to moderate levels of disaster preparedness in this population. Most of these researches also suggest enhanced education as an effective means of increasing preparedness. But what other strategy can improve nurse-led disaster care?

Like every other operational process, technology can significantly enhance disaster response by providing innovative tools and resources that streamline communication, facilitate data management, enhance patient assessment, and improve healthcare efficiency. In this context, nurses are encouraged to delve into potential solutions such as telehealth, EHRs, wearable health devices, GIS mapping, and predictive analytics. Nurses also need to explore health informatics and how it can be integrated within the nursing practice for disaster response. Health informatics plays a pivotal role in revolutionizing the landscape of healthcare, and its integration within nursing practice holds immense potential for improving patient care and outcomes.

By embracing technological advancements, nurse-led disaster care can be revolutionized, enabling nurses to be better prepared and more efficient in delivering patient-centered care in emergencies.

It comes as no surprise that nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system. And in the event of a disaster, they are often the first to detect, prevent, and treat emergencies. Yet, nurses still face many challenges in fulfilling their roles, from lack of training to limited support and little to no recognition. Therefore, nurses must be empowered, respected, and valued for their contributions to healthcare and society.

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