In case of emergency

Disaster Response 101: 5 top tips on being ready for the unthinkable

Physicians can prepare by taking classes, staying in-the-know and understanding a few crucial components of disaster medicine.


Disaster often strikes without warning—a shooter at the mall, a tragic accident on the highway. Physicians who respond to, or happen to be at the scene, must instantly spring into action to triage those who are injured.

When Michael M. Neeki, DO, MS, responded to the scene of the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, he drew on his experience in tactical medicine, which includes advanced training in trauma response.

“You can’t just wait for a disaster to happen. It’s important to have a plan in place and be prepared to help,” says Dr. Neeki, the director of tactical medicine at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, California.

DOs who have treated patients following a tragedy say physicians can prepare for disaster response by taking classes, staying in-the-know and understanding a few crucial components of disaster medicine.

Take a class

Disaster training classes can help you learn how to provide care with very limited supplies. Many organizations offer courses, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Disaster Life Support Foundation.

“You don’t have diagnostic tests like a CAT scan in the field. The main job is assessing the situation, triaging those who are medically unstable, and working with first responders to rapidly assist and transport patients to the nearest emergency department,” says Rob Danoff, DO, who treated passengers after an Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia in 2015.

Be ready to think on your feet

George N. Smith, DO, stresses that in addition to having a disaster plan, it’s important to be prepared for the unexpected.

In 2013, he led a practice fire drill at the nursing home where he served as medical director. Just a few weeks later, a nearby fertilizer plant explosion caused part of the nursing home to collapse, blocking the exit route outlined during the fire drill. Without any hallways, some patients had to be evacuated out of windows.

“You prepare the best you can, but you also have to be able to think on your feet because no two disasters are the same,” Dr. Smith says.

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Treat the emotional impact

While physicians often look for the physical signs of trauma, they should also look for the silent signs of emotional distress.

After the Amtrak crash, Dr. Danoff was treating a woman and noticed that she repeatedly mentioned her husband. In an effort to calm the patient, Dr. Danoff called her husband to let him know she was OK.

“Emotional distress can often appear later. It’s important to keep in touch when treating your own patients. If you’re in the field, be sure the people you are helping know how to reach out for follow-up services,” Dr. Danoff says.

Know the zones

Dr. Neeki explains there are different zones signifying varying levels of danger that are set up during an active shooting. The Federal Emergency Management Agency created guidelines in 2013 to identify where emergency medical personnel can safely treat victims during an incident.

Get on the list

For the most recent public health news in your area, sign up to receive alerts from your local city or state health departments. You can also sign up for email updates on current outbreaks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Reading these updates can help you be prepared in the event of an emergency,” Dr. Danoff says.


  1. Bob Fedor

    I was hiking on Mt Jefferson in New Hampshire with Denmark Hiking Club when a few hundred feet below summit, a hiker fell and suffered a head injury and cardiac arrest. we were prepared and administered CPR, contacted Forest Rangers and local EMS who dispatched a Helicopter that could not land on the side of the mountain. We did CPR for 2.6 hours when the Rangers suddenly declared it a recovery mission. Within 20 minutes a National Guard Helicopter arrived on site and airlifted the now dead hiker. Radio communication among rescue groups is not always timely.

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