When Disaster Strikes

Health care providers train for an emergency with a volunteer.

The Ebola scare, the Joplin tornado, the Boston Bombing, and Hurricane Sandy showed that nurses are exemplary leaders, innovators and team members in times of crises.

Yet such disasters also highlighted gaps, lack of training and resource constraints that limit nurses’ ability to safeguard the nation’s health during extraordinary events.

Through the lens of four disasters, this brief looks at the roles nurses play in the disaster management cycle and highlights lessons learned for future crises.

The Issue
Experts agree we can expect more natural disasters, terrorist events and novel infectious diseases in our lifetimes. Nurses are ready, willing and well positioned to respond to these events, yet often they feel underprepared or lack the authority or resources to handle such crises. Nurses receive minimal disaster-focused instruction as part of their formal education, and employers sometimes fail to put crisis policies in place or to engage staff in regular disaster drills. Federal funding for preparation is inconsistent from year to year, while state and local cutbacks threaten the public health workforce.

Key Findings

  • Nurses need more education and preparation in responding to disasters. They want access to valid, reliable, low-cost educational programs and resources as well as to just-in-time, evidence-based information.

  • Institutions must invest in cultures that value teamwork, safety, nurse leadership and honest communication among diverse professionals.

  • Investments in interprofessional collaboration enable nurses to speak up about practices that jeopardize their patients’ safety and their own.

  • Health care organizations are part of multi-actor community networks that need to prepare, exchange resources, coordinate and communicate during—and before—disasters.

  • To ensure a robust response, government must invest continually in preparedness and public health. Meanwhile, federal health-related disaster preparedness funding has been flat or declining.

Effective responses are characterized by preparation, collaboration and multi-sector coordination. Yet even with adequate preparedness, disasters by definition strain resources and may cause systems to fail. As a result, nurses’ dedication and ingenuity remain crucial when disaster strikes.

About the Series
For 10 years, Charting Nursing’s Future has assembled research and expert opinion to inform readers about policies and best practices that are transforming nursing, health care and public health. Propensity LLC currently produces this series.