Across the world, nurses are called upon to fill critical roles during disaster relief efforts. Their cumulative knowledge and expertise significantly influences the overall success of the mission and is instrumental in restoring local healthcare services and providing much needed stability to victims and communities.
Although volunteering is often intense and fast-paced with long hours and sometimes dangerous or primitive working conditions, many nurses find the work incredibly rewarding. Registering with one or more disaster relief agencies allows nurses to stay up to date on volunteer opportunities as well as assists in rapid mobilization efforts for when disaster does strike.
What Disaster Relief Services Do Nurses Provide?
Regardless of the type of disaster -- manmade, natural or some other type of public health emergency -- nurses provide a range of vital services. Although many of the duties overlap with those carried out under normal circumstances, the initial focus is largely on acute and critical care needs and support services.
Triage. One of the primary services nurses provide during disaster relief is triage. Depending on the extent of the area's infrastructure damage, nurses perform assessments of sick or injured patients in locations ranging from hospitals to temporary makeshift shelters.
Patient transfers. When local hospitals sustain damages such as loss of power or flooding, patients will need to be transferred to another facility. The most critically ill patients are frequently transported first and nurses assist in stabilizing them as well as coordinating transfers.
Nursing support. Following a potential influx of patients to area hospitals, the demand for services is likely to outweigh the availability of nursing staff. Volunteer nurses assist in meeting the increased demand as well as providing backup for local nurses, many of whom work extended shifts until relief staff arrives.
Mental health support. Victims are likely to experience significant emotional trauma following a tragedy and the possible loss of a home, possessions or loved one. The American Red Cross suggests that nurses be prepared to implement psychological first aid, which focuses on demonstrating compassion and meeting the basic needs of each victim. For complex or severe cases, nurses will assist in coordinating outside mental health referrals and resources for the victim.
Education and outreach. Although nurses' skills are in high demand during a disaster, not all relief duties are directly related to clinical care. Nurses are often asked to lend a hand in other ways including organizing supplies, handing out water and clothing or directing victims to additional resources such as housing assistance.
What Are the Requirements for Nurse Volunteers?
There are a number of organizations that coordinate volunteers for disaster relief emergencies. While each organization will have its own requirements, screening procedures and possibly even preparedness programs, nurses interested in pursuing domestic or international relief efforts will usually need to provide documented proof of at least one or more of the following:
- Driver's license.
- Professional nursing license(s) and credentials.
- Passport and/or visa.
- Immunization records.
While not a requirement, nurses should consider enrolling in a disaster preparedness program to gain more insight into the expectations and realities of voluntary service. There are several courses, both on-demand and scheduled, that are offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and affiliated agencies.
How Do Nurses Volunteer for Disaster Relief?
In order to avoid confusion and streamline relief efforts, nurses are discouraged from traveling to disaster areas on their own. Preregistering with existing disaster relief organizations is highly recommended and ensures that nurse eligibility screenings have been completed and basic preparatory instructions are given. Nurses are then notified when volunteer opportunities become available.
The following are some organizations to consider registering with:
- American Red Cross.
- Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
- Medical Reserve Corps.
- National Disaster Medical System.
- Registered Nurse Response Network.
Relief teams are also frequently coordinated by state- and national-level nursing associations as well as state health agencies such as the Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals (ESAR-VHP). The ESAR-VHP is a federal program that is administered at the state level. Its purpose is to assemble a registry of professional volunteers and verify current licensures and facility credentials so that dispatch times are minimized.
A Voluntary Mission
When disaster strikes, the demand for experienced nurses quickly rises in response. Nurses who voluntarily register with disaster relief organizations are indispensable assets, capable of preventing further loss of life, re-establishing reliable healthcare services and extending comfort to victims and their families. Although working in impacted areas is stressful and challenging, many nurses find unparalleled pride and gratification in undertaking such a meaningful mission.
Learn more about the University of Texas Permian Basin's RN to BSN Online.
Sources:American Nurses Association: Volunteer Now!
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