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What Is a Crisis Nurse? Helping Hospitals During Disasters

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Crisis nursing is an important part of keeping the U.S. healthcare system functional. During a pandemic or natural disaster, for example, hospitals can find themselves understaffed and exceeding capacity. Crisis nurses fill the immediate need for healthcare workers, taking short-term contracts to support hospitals in need. This vital service often means higher pay, more hands-on experience, and frequent travel.


To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Maryville University’s RN to BSN online program.

What Is a Crisis Nurse?

A crisis nurse takes a short-term contract at a hospital when the facility needs more help. They’re paid well for the intense work they do, and they’re experienced with stressful, fast-paced conditions. An estimated 50,000 travel nurses, such as crisis nurses, currently work across the country, up from 31,000 in 2018, according to Kaiser Health News.

Disasters That Require Crisis Nurses

Several types of disasters can require a hospital to hire crisis nurses, including a pandemic. For example, during COVID-19, many hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of cases filling their beds and hired crisis nurses to help care for the extra patients.


A seasonal surge is another reason why hospitals hire crisis nurses. Travel seasons include popular times for student gatherings, family vacations, large family reunions, and travel among retirees, such as spring or summer break.


Disasters such as terrorist attacks, bombings, earthquakes, and hurricanes also require more help.


Sometimes, rural communities bring nurses in from other locations to mitigate staffing shortages. These shortages aren’t typically tied to a natural disaster or pandemic.

Types of Travel Nurses

A crisis nurse usually takes a contract that lasts a few weeks and stays at one hospital for the duration. These nurses travel to a location to help with a disaster, focusing on those affected by it. Crisis nurses often work under high-risk conditions and may need to have specific skills, such as ICU nursing.


A rapid response nurse may begin work as soon as two days after accepting a contract. The contracts are open-ended because nurses need to stay on location until the need for them subsides. These nurses aren’t always hired for disasters; they may be called on to help with a software update or a sudden influx of non-emergency patients.

Crisis pay nursing is needed more than ever, as many disasters require nurses’ help.

Working During a Disaster

Nurses who are considering crisis pay nursing jobs should explore the typical experiences and requirements.

Finding Work

Crisis nurse agencies connect crisis nurses to hospitals in need. Agencies may partner directly with hospitals or respond to specific disasters. Most agencies provide job listings on their websites to aid crisis nurses in finding their next placements. An agency will assist crisis nurses with the necessary paperwork and usually help them find housing as well. It also may help crisis nurses secure insurance and negotiate contracts with a facility.


Because of the high expectations, stress, and quick turnaround, crisis nurses are well compensated. Their bonuses include between $20 and $50 per hour in extra pay, overtime pay, and $100 or $200 for extra or risky shifts. According to Kaiser Health News, in April 2020, crisis nurses earned more than $6,200 per week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; more than $8,000 per week in Fargo, North Dakota; and up to $10,000 per week in some locations.


These wages are designed to ensure that nurses are available when they’re most needed, but organizations must also make sure nurses can perform these duties safely while maintaining their own well-being.

The Crisis Nurse Experience

Each crisis nurse goes through orientation. Nurses spend four to 15 hours on online preparatory tasks, such as clinical knowledge testing. The first day is usually a nonclinical day doing paperwork. Clinical orientation can take between several hours and two days.


Crisis nurses are expected to have high-level skills, as well as a team-player attitude, flexibility and adaptability, excellent communication skills, and the ability to remain calm under pressure.


Traditional contracts are 36 to 40 hours per week for 13 weeks. COVID-19 caused hospitals to offer shorter assignments (two to eight weeks), as well as extended contracts. Crisis nurses won’t be paid for canceled shifts, unless they have an hours guarantee clause in their contract.


The unit scheduler or a central staffing team makes schedules on short notice. A crisis nurse should request any necessary time off before taking on an assignment and ensure their initial contract for the assignment reflects that request.

How to Become a Crisis Nurse

Before becoming a crisis nurse, an individual must take certain actions.

Formal Education

An aspiring crisis nurse can start by earning an Associate Degree in Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Then, they will need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and get a compact license to practice nursing across state lines. Once they gain one to two years of nursing experience, depending on the specialty, a nurse is ready to work during crises.


Specialty certifications can increase the jobs a crisis nurse is qualified for, as well as their earning potential. Examples include Certified Dialysis Nurse (CDN), Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN), Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN), Certified Nephrology Nurse (CNN), Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN), Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR), Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN), and Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN).

Crisis Nursing Is in Demand

Crisis nurses are always in demand — but even more so during a pandemic such as COVID-19. They provide a vital service for hospitals that are understaffed due to disasters, nurse shortages, disease outbreaks, or seasonal surges.


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