Nurse Types / Crisis Nurse
A crisis nurse responds to urgent staffing needs during natural disasters, pandemics, and other events that stress a local healthcare system.
Most crisis nurse positions are short-term and develop out of a sudden need for more skilled healthcare providers. For example, crisis nurses were called to New York City at the height of COVID-19 and to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Do you have what it takes to become a crisis nurse? This article will explore everything you need to know, including:
- What is a crisis nurse?
- What do crisis nurses do?
- Where do crisis nurses work?
- What are closely related fields?
- How do you become a crisis nurse in 3 steps?
- What are additional requirements of crisis nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for crisis nurses?
What is a crisis nurse?
Crisis nurses are a type of travel nurse who is willing to respond immediately to an emergency healthcare event.
Crisis nursing can pay very well, but these positions often involve long hours, limited time off, and scarce resources. Crisis nurses receive very little on-the-job training, so this type of nursing is generally reserved for experienced nurses.
Qualities of a successful crisis nurse
Crisis nursing can be a challenge. To succeed, you must be:
- Willing and able to respond immediately to a crisis event
- Ready to work long hours with limited time off
- Highly skilled in emergency or critical care nursing
- Able to use your nursing knowledge to safely improvise when resources are limited
- Comfortable working independently and without a formal orientation
- Ready with a strong self-care plan to deal with the physical and emotional rigors of crisis work
What do crisis nurses do?
Crisis nurse contracts are generally more short-term than the average travel nurse position. A crisis nurse may work for as little as one week to cover a nursing strike at a hospital in California, up to a full thirteen weeks to provide back-up for an unexpected COVID surge in Houston.
Learn more about other types of nursing, including career outlook and average salary.
A day in the life of a crisis nurse
A crisis nurse must have the skills and experience to immediately provide advanced nursing care without a typical onboarding or orientation. At times, orientation can be as short as a few hours on the first day of work.
Crisis nurses should also be prepared for a higher patient ratio than usual. Additionally, the local emergency situation often means that on-site staff are extremely stressed and overburdened, which may create an even more challenging work environment.
Crisis nurses should be prepared to learn the charting and medication administration systems in each new setting.
Common conditions treated by crisis nurses
Crisis nurses should be prepared to float wherever the need is greatest. Within a single crisis assignment, they may:
- Float to the ER, the CVICU, labor and delivery, and progressive care within the span of a few weeks
- Deal exclusively with a particular infectious disease (like COVID-19)
- Provide care for trauma-related injuries after a natural disaster
- Have to figure out how to provide safe care with limited resources due to power outages, lack of supplies, or an influx of patients
Where do crisis nurses work?
Crisis nurses work wherever the need arises. They may be asked to work in a busy urban hospital after a local outbreak or in a quiet rural healthcare system overwhelmed after a natural disaster.
What are closely related fields?
Crisis nurses may take on more routine travel nurse assignments between crisis contracts. Local travel nursing provides the opportunity to maintain a home base while enjoying the benefits of travel nursing.
Nurses who enjoy the high-adrenaline life of crisis nursing may also pursue:
How do you become a crisis nurse in 3 steps?
There are three main steps to becoming a crisis nurse:
- Obtain your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- Gain experience in critical care nursing
- Get certified in core critical nursing skills
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse
Earn a BSN degree
To become a crisis nurse, you must first obtain your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). If you already have a bachelors in a related field, an accelerated BSN program can help you get your BSN in as little as 16 months.
A BSN shows employers that you have advanced training in nursing skills and critical thinking. If you have an ADN, there are RN-to-BSN programs to help you quickly bridge the gap.
Pass the NCLEX exam
The next step to becoming an RN is passing the NCLEX exam. This national exam ensures that nurses have the minimum knowledge necessary to practice safely. Once you pass the NCLEX, you can apply for a nursing license in the state where you want to work.
Step 2 – Accumulate experience
Helpful skills and experience
If you want to become a crisis nurse, it’s essential to have previous experience working in critical care nursing, including in the ICU or emergency department.
Sub-specialties in critical care are also in high demand, including:
- Neuro ICU
- Surgical nursing
- Labor and delivery
- Pediatric intensive care
- Neonatal intensive care nursing
- Cardiovascular intensive care nursing
At a minimum, crisis nurses should have at least two years of prior experience before applying to crisis nurse positions.
Changing specialty to a crisis nurse
If you want to change your specialty to crisis nursing, start by ensuring you have several years of experience in a highly desired field.
Other ways to increase your odds of finding a crisis nursing position include:
- Working as a travel nurse for several contracts to gain experience working in new environments
- Working towards extra certifications to show your expertise
- Making sure you have a compact nursing license and all required CEUs for the states where you wish to work
Expert advice from nurses like you
Step 3 – Obtain certifications
Crisis nurse positions can be competitive due to the potential for very high pay. Maintaining certifications and credentials in different fields can help you stand out and land a lucrative contract.
The most common certifications for travel nurses include:
Each of these positions requires several years of experience with a particular population.
To obtain the CPN certification, you must:
- Pass a national exam
- Demonstrate 1,800 hours of pediatric experience in the last 24 months or
- Have at least five years of experience working as a pediatric Registered Nurse and 3,000 hours in pediatric nursing within the last five years, with a minimum of 1000 hours within the past 24 months
The Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN) national certification is offered by The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (ANCC) and includes three sub-specialties:
For each subspeciality, you must:
- Have 1,750 practice hours as an RN in direct care of acutely/critically ill pediatric patients during the previous two years, with 875 of those hours taking place in the year preceding application or
- Five years of experience as an RN with a minimum of 2,000 hours in direct care of acutely/critically ill pediatric patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the year preceding application
The Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN) exam is offered by the Board of Certification of Emergency Nursing. To sit for this exam, you need two years of relevant experience.
It’s also important to stay up to date on all certifications and to keep these certifications in an easy-to-access virtual document that can be shared quickly with travel nurse companies.
What are additional requirements of crisis nurses?
Crisis nurses should be prepared to start a new position on very short notice – sometimes as short as a few days. Nurses with families or pets requiring care need to have a plan in place that can be implemented at a moment’s notice.
Due to the unpredictable nature of crisis nursing, this type of nurse should be comfortable with uncertainty. They may not have the next assignment lined up after finishing a contract, so they need a good savings plan to cover “off” weeks.
In addition, crisis nurses need to be vigilant about staying up-to-date on routine employment screens and renewals, like:
- N-95 fit testing
- Drug screens
- ACLS, BLS, and PALS recertification
- Nursing license renewals
- Continuing Education Units (CEU) requirements
Crisis nurses should ensure they are licensed in their home state and maintain a compact nursing license. Additional licenses in other states outside the nursing compact will allow the crisis nurse to respond to more opportunities.
What are the salary and career outlooks for crisis nurses?
One of the biggest benefits of working as a crisis nurse is the potential for very high pay.
Crisis nurses can earn between $2,000 to $10,000 per week, depending on the specialty and the city.
The average salary for crisis nurses is $100,896 per year. However, this can stretch to over $200,000 per year for nurses in extremely high-demand areas who receive exceptional bonus packages.
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Most crisis nurse contracts provide a weekly stipend for housing in addition to reimbursement for travel expenses. Some offer sign-on bonuses or other incentives.
It’s important to carefully read through your crisis nurse contract before accepting a position. When reviewing a crisis nurse contract, be sure to review:
- Base rate
- Overtime rate
- Hazard pay
- Housing and/or transportation stipend
- Take-home pay (after taxes)
- Need for quarantine before or after the contract, and if this is paid
While crisis nursing can be challenging and stressful at times, many nurses find great satisfaction in the work.
As a crisis nurse, you can:
- Provide lifesaving care during disasters and public health emergencies
- Have the opportunity to travel around the United States
- Earn one of the highest potential salaries in bedside nursing
- Support nursing colleagues when they need extra hands
- Put your nursing skills to the ultimate test in a fast-paced, dynamic environment
Do you have what it takes to become a crisis nurse? Talk to other crisis nurses on the Incredible Health forum and learn how you can enter this exciting and challenging field.
Incredible Health is your one-stop shop for everything you need to advance your nursing career. Create a free profile with Incredible Health, and we’ll help you:
- Stay current in your nursing license with free continuing education units (CEUs)
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- Steps to CPN Certification. Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Initial Certifications. American Academy of Critical Care Nurses. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Certified Emergency Nurse. Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing. Accessed July 18, 2022.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook – Registered Nurses. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed July 18, 2022.