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Tips for Preparing Nursing Staff for Natural Disasters

Tips for Preparing Nursing Staff for Natural Disasters

“Always be prepared” is a well-known Scouting motto. For medical professionals, especially for nurses, this motto rings particularly true.  Since nurses are often referred to ‘as the most trusted professionals in healthcare’, patients will often turn to them for help and advice on anything and everything. So, it’s almost a given that if a disaster were to strike, a nurse would be considered front line staff and the go-to person to help get people through it.    

A disaster is defined as a sudden event that causes great damage and or loss of life.  Whether man-made or natural, disasters are a reality that can happen at any moment, anywhere. The key to getting through a disaster is to always be prepared.

Most communities have a disaster response plan in place.  This is a large scale plan that typically includes roles and responsibilities for all community resources: medical, fire, police, etc. Hospitals and medical staff are often at the center of a disaster response plan as they need to be prepared to care for a high number of sick and injured.  

As great and as comprehensive as these large scale plans are, they don’t include how individuals - particularly those involved in a disaster response team, deal with disasters themselves.  How for example, do nurses ensure that they are prepared? What does disaster preparation look like? What are the tools they need to survive a disaster?

Well here are a few steps, tips and tricks that nurses can use to easily prepare themselves for disasters.

How to Prepare Oneself

Think about being on a plane, and what happens when the cabin pressure drops. When those little air bags fall from the ceiling, one of the first instructions passengers are given is to put the mask on themselves before helping fellow passengers. This is because, if you were rendered unconscious, it would be impossible to help the person sitting next to you.

The same theory rings true for disaster preparation. Nurses should take the time to ensure that their home, car and family are prepared to deal with an emergency before they even begin to think about how they can help others.

One of the first places a nurse should prepare for an emergency is their home.  It is recommended to have the following things stashed away in an easy to get to home emergency kit.

  • Water
  • Non-perishable food
  • Manual can opener
  • Crank or battery-operated flashlight -  don’t forget the extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit with basic instructions for dealing with the sick and injured
  • Extra keys, for the house and car and any other place that may require access to
  • Special needs items like medication and infant formula
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Important family documents such as copies of birth and marriage certificates, passports, licenses, wills, land deeds and insurance
  • Cash in small bills
  • A copy of the emergency plan

A good rule of thumb is to have enough food, water and supplies to last 72 hours. Make sure the kit is clearly labeled and that everyone in the household knows where to find it.  Also, make note of expiration dates and rotate the contents of the stash with fresh supplies once in a while.  

Preparing the car

Since a disaster can and will strike at any time, it’s important to not only get the home prepared but also the car.  This can be done by keeping a car emergency kit in the trunk.  The car kit should include:

  • Blankets
  • Candles and flashlights
  • Bottle water
  • Snacks - energy bars are perfect for this
  • Shovel
  • Jumper cables
  • Flares

As a nurse or really, any other medical professional for that matter - it’s important to try and keep the gas tank at least half full at all times.  The last thing anybody wants when dealing with a disaster is to run out of gas, especially when trying to rush into a disaster zone to help others.

Preparing the family

Okay, so the house and the car are prepared but, what about those people living in the house?  What do they know about dealing with disasters? Do they know where to find the disaster kit?  Do they know what to do with it?   

It’s important to create a game plan so that everyone knows what to do should a disaster strike.  Have escape routes sorted out and clearly marked on maps or blueprints, and keep lists of emergency contacts on hand.  For families with small children, make sure that they know their address, phone number and how to use the phone.

Take the time to talk about what to do when there is an emergency.  It may seem silly, but practice makes perfect. Try running through a few drills once in a while - what to do if there is a floor, fire or blizzard for example.

Use this checklist to ensure that everyone in the home knows what to do in case of an emergency:

  • Create an escape plan that includes where to go if disaster strikes.  For example if there was flash flooding, everyone should head for the upper floors of the home.
  • Designate a meeting location outside of the home and give everyone instructions on how to find the spot. This is especially helpful if a group gets separated
  • Have a list of emergency contacts on hand - be sure to let the designated contacts know that someone might be reaching out to them for help
  • Ensure that everyone knows how to reach one another - especially small children.  Teach them how to operate the phone and make sure they know phone numbers off by heart.

Another factor to consider, especially for nurses and other first responders, is the possibility of having to leave family behind to help others.  Remember that for small children or elderly parents, this can be a bitter pill to swallow. No one wants to be away from their loved ones when dealing with a disaster, and having to leave them behind can especially hard. Be sure to have reliable friends and family that can step-in and help with caring for small children or elderly family members.

Preparing colleagues

When it comes to disasters, it’s never safe to assume anything. Never assume that your colleagues or managers have thought about what to do when disaster strikes. Talk to management to ensure that all emergency contingency plans are in place.  If not, ask to be a part of the team that puts something together. Make sure that there are supplies - not just medical, available for staff including water and food.  Take the lead on creating workflows and crisis management worksheets to ensure that everyone has a role should the worst happen. Be prepared to step in with additional supplies (remember those kits in your car) if needed. Create a contact sheet so that staff and colleagues can be reached outside of work.

Why being prepared matters

As much as it’s the last thing anybody wants to think about - being prepared for a disaster is key to helping minimizing anxiety and fear that individuals have when faced with the potential of a disaster.  Preparation may also prevent some of the damage and losses that can come along with disasters.  Unfortunately, it’s not matter of if, but rather when will disaster strike.  For that reason alone, to have a better chance at survival, it’s imperative to always be prepared.

Take some time, maybe a few hours over the next month to get organized to deal with a disaster.  Disasters are scary and the fact of the matter is that everyone needs to be prepared. For individuals who have to go from survivor to caregiver in the face of disaster, being like the boy scouts and always being prepared can help to make being in a disaster zone a little less scary