Published September 11, 2019
In the moments after a natural disaster, nurses are often the medical providers on the front lines delivering critical emergency care. However, few nursing students are educated on disaster and emergency response.
Volunteer firefighter and nursing professor Joann Sands aims to increase the amount of disaster response training available to students, one program at a time.
Sands is a former exercise co-director and staff member of New York Hope, a four-day disaster response program that challenges participants to overcome their fears and hone their skills as emergency responders.
The annual program, now in its fourth year, is open to students, community members, and local and state emergency responders. Sands led a group of four UB nursing students and alumni in the exercise from Aug. 9-12 in Oriskany, N.Y.
“As the largest portion of health care providers, nurses are going to encounter a victim of a disaster and it is important that they are trained and have the knowledge and skills to respond, whether they are caring for someone on the front lines of a disaster or in a hospital,” said Sands, clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing.
During New York Hope, participants learn skills related to search and rescue, radio operations, disaster psychology and more. Groups engage in hands-on disaster scenarios that range from plane crashes to floods and swift water rescue. The simulations offer participants a controlled and safe environment to learn and practice new skills.
The program is sponsored by UB; the University at Albany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber Security; Elmira College; and the Consortium for Humanitarian Service and Education (CHSE).
Sands, who has also served as a volunteer emergency medical technician for more than a decade, is driven by a passion for providing care to people when they are at their most vulnerable.
“For as long as I can remember, I have always been captivated by the dynamics of disasters,” said Sands, who is pursuing a graduate degree in disaster preparedness and emergency management from Arkansas State University.
“As a nurse who has had the opportunity to be involved in a few deployments after hurricanes and flooding, I feel an even greater passion to train those that may be responding to disasters as part of an interdisciplinary health care team to care for victims, or people who just want to learn ways that they can be more prepared.”
For years, she participated in Missouri Hope and Florida Hope, disaster response training simulations organized by CHSE, a volunteer-led non-profit dedicated to preparing responders for work in humanitarian aid.
Although Sands invites UB students to attend with her, the distance often creates a barrier for many.
By partnering with colleagues at Elmira College and the University at Albany, Sands obtained a grant from the UB School of Nursing to help bring CHSE training closer to home.
Since the inaugural program in 2016, New York Hope attracts dozens of people each year who seek emergency response training. The exercises are held at the New York State Preparedness Training Center, the only center in the state that offers swift water rescue training.
During a training exercise, New York Hope participants extract a "victim" from a building that collapsed during a hurricane. Photo: Joann Sands
New York Hope participants extract a "victim" from a building that collapsed during a hurricane. Photo: Joann Sands
A New York Hope participant tends to a victim during a training exercise in Oriskany, New York, this summer. Photo: Joann Sands
New York Hope participants triage "patients" in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Photo: Joann Sands
Since the founding of New York Hope, UB student participation in CHSE training has doubled, says Sands.
Cari Gavin, who graduated this year from the School of Nursing’s accelerated bachelor’s degree program, credits the program’s proximity for her ability to participate in New York Hope. The training helped her advance toward her dream of becoming a member of a disaster medical assistance team.
“A lot of the people there were nurses,” said Gavin, a former emergency medical technician and doula. “It’s a great training as a nurse because it taught us how to react in an emergency, and it helped me see what my strengths and weaknesses are.”
This year’s New York Hope involved various scenarios. Gavin took part in a simulated swift water rescue during a hurricane, where she practiced jumping into raging waters and throwing ropes to save victims.
“I’ll never be able to go kayaking again without a little bit of healthy fear,” said Gavin.
Other exercises involved triaging victims after a mass shooting, rescuing people from a building toppled by an explosion and answering questions about disasters during a press conference.
The scenarios are all designed to feel as realistic as possible for complete immersion by participants. Gavin noted her surprise when a victim nearly dragged her into the water during the swift water rescue, the shock of hearing explosions and the composure needed to treat an overwhelming number of victims with devastating injuries.
The exercises also served as an interprofessional training opportunity for Gavin and other participants, as they learned to work with other health care professionals and volunteers from various disciplines, including cyber and homeland security, political science and environmental sciences.
Sands currently teaches a course on public health nursing that has one week dedicated to disaster preparedness.
She hopes to expand the single lesson into an elective emergency and disaster management course that is available to all UB students — which would be the first course of its kind at the university.
“Whether students are going to be working locally, nationally or internationally, everyone can benefit from having training and knowledge surrounding various disasters in order to care for and protect themselves and victims,” said Sands.