Preparing for Disaster:  Making Every Nurse a Disaster Nurse

A disaster doesn’t have to be as massive as the California wildfires, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11 to be devastating. Even a relatively minor emergency, such as a severe snowstorm or an explosion in a chemical factory, can sicken or injure hundreds and take lives.

Renowned author and disaster nursing expert, Tener Goodwin Veenema, PhD, MPH, MS, CPNP, defines a disaster as “any event where the demand exceeds the available resources. This means that nurses need to be prepared to deal with all hazards,” which include natural disasters, infectious disease outbreaks, other public health emergencies, terrorist attacks, and disasters caused by biological, chemical, or radiological agents. These hazards can occur suddenly and require care for mass casualties, such as after an earthquake. Or they can endanger lives insidiously, such as when windblown radiation causes contamination for years after a nuclear power accident.

For all types of hazards, nurses play a major role in responding to disasters, managing their victims, and ensuring the best possible outcomes. In her research and discussions with nurses, Dr. Veenema has found that nurses have two major concerns about this role.

  • Personal safety: “Nurses want to know that they’re safe and that their loved ones and patients are safe.”
  • Clinical competence: “They want to know they can deal with emergencies properly—even less common ones like massive radiation exposure or SARS outbreaks.”

The demand for disaster nursing and emergency preparedness is growing, not just for first responders but for all nurses.

As Dr. Veenema notes, “Disasters don’t discriminate. They can happen anywhere at any time. And the incidence of national disasters has increased since 2004. In this country, one to two moderately large disasters now occur every week.”

In addition, the federal government has increased its emphasis on emergency preparedness since the 9/11 attacks and anthrax incidents of 2001. As part of this initiative, the government could mobilize all 2.9 million nurses in a national emergency.

To help nurses in any practice setting prepare for disasters, Dr. Veenema recommends reaching beyond traditional education. “Despite the attention to emergency preparedness over the past six years, most schools of nursing don’t cover this topic. Few address even such basics as disaster triage, radiation decontamination, and proper personal protective equipment.”

In her experience, ReadyRN: Disaster Nursing and Emergency Preparedness is the “only course that provides nurses with the knowledge and skills to manage disaster events and to participate safely.”

Unlike other continuing education courses, ReadyRN addresses all hazards and also covers related legal, ethical, and moral issues.

According to Dr. Veenema, “Nursing organizations do a great service by providing ReadyRN for their nursing staff. As part of the larger national initiative, this course can help make every nurse a disaster nurse.”

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