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Disaster Medical Specialist


Over the past decade, between 100,000 and 350,000 people a year have been affected by disasters worldwide. Disaster medicine is an emerging field that addresses the preparation for, response to and recovery from disasters. Career tracks in disaster medicine can be viewed as being either clinical or operational.

The clinical realm of disaster medicine includes the direct provision of care. Disaster medicine is a relatively new specialty for physicians who want to be “first on the scene” of an emergency that involves mass injury or illness or who find themselves in the midst of a disaster as it unfolds around them. 

Other health care professions – dentists, psychologists, physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists and chaplains, for example – are defining their role in disaster response.

Disaster medicine is every provider’s second specialty. Whether a hurricane, earthquake, epidemic, chemical leak, bioterrorist event or mass shooting, responders need to be prepared. A disaster can happen any time, any place.

The operational realm includes all providers, plus the planners, administrators, logisticians, educators and others who work to facilitate disaster and global health capacities. Disaster medical specialists can be found at federal, state and local preparedness agencies and departments of health. Corporations sometimes include disaster medical specialists in their risk management or continuity of operations departments and some firms specialize in this area.

Disaster medical specialists become experts in the rapid medical assessment of disaster victims based on the nature of the disaster, which can vary widely. Victims of a collapsed building require very different care, for example, than victims of a biological attack. Other necessary skills include managing resources, coordinating care and communicating with the response team.

Disaster medicine focuses on five phases of response:

  • Prevention, which focuses on preventing human hazards, primarily from potential natural disasters or terrorist (both physical and biological) attacks
  • Preparedness, a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action
  • Response, comprised of the coordination and management of resources (including personnel, equipment and supplies), including patient triage at the disaster site and transport and care of the victims
  • Recovery, activities that continue beyond the emergency period to restore critical community functions and begin to manage stabilization efforts
  • Mitigation, the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters and emergencies

A natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or a man-made emergency, such as a train derailment or a terrorist attack, can involve hundreds or even thousands of victims. During an emergency in their communities, disaster medical specialists are medical leaders. Disaster medical specialists work to minimize casualties by reaching the site as quickly as possible, evaluating and stabilizing the victims and evacuating them to health care facilities. They are trained to provide care at the scene and to manage teams of health care professionals, first responders and volunteers.

Providers who specialize in disaster medicine also help hospitals and government agencies design effective disaster response and recovery plans. Any provider can train to become a disaster medical specialist. In fact, this is valuable since providers from all disciplines may be called on when a disaster strikes. When not on the scene of a disaster, they work in in their regular specialty.

Working Conditions

Disaster medicine is, by definition, a high-stress specialty. You never know when you will be sent to a scene or what to expect when you get there or the scene may be unfolding around you.

Disaster medicine isn’t clean and antiseptic. The pressure is intense. You have to be comfortable getting your hands dirty and making life-or-death decisions on the spot.

If the recovery work lasts several days, you may have to work long hours, catching sleep when you can on a cot or even the ground.

When disaster strikes, most people feel helpless and wish they could do something. Disaster medical specialists are trained to do something by saving lives and aiding the wounded when the unthinkable happens.

Outlook and Salary Range

While some disaster medical specialists may receive some compensation for their work, most are health care professionals who volunteer when they are needed at a disaster site.

Some health care professionals are employed full- or part-time as disaster medical specialists. Salaries for disaster medical specialists at state and local health departments range from $45,000 to $150,000.

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About a Career as a Disaster Medical Specialist

About Health Care Careers

Note: Heidi P. Cordi, M.D., FACEP, FAADM, president of the American Academy of Disaster Medicine, reviewed this profile.

Academic Requirements

Academic requirements to become a disaster medical specialist begin with that of your primary career. For example, you must first complete college and medical school, then a residency in a medical or surgical specialty to become an allopathic or osteopathic physician.

Public health planners, on the other hand, may start their careers as epidemiologists, emergency medical technicians or military medical specialists.

A specialized training and certification program in disaster medicine supplements your regular career training.

The core competencies related to disaster planning, disaster response and disaster recovery include:

  • A basic knowledge of the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System
  • The importance of safety in disaster responses, including protective equipment, decontamination and site security
  • The principles of triage in a disaster setting
  • The clinical competence to provide effective care with extremely limited resources
  • Understanding of psychological first aid and caring for responders

Training in disaster medicine may include classroom work, field training, military training and actual disaster deployments: