Aims and objectives. To explore: the selection criteria for first responder nurses during disaster; scope of practice for disaster relief nurses; appropriate nurse - medical practitioner ratio at the disaster site. Background. Nurses are key members of disaster response medical teams. A scarcity of literature exists relating to nurses attending disasters, their qualifications, experience, scope of practice and appropriate staffing ratios. Design. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected via survey using self-developed questionnaires. Participants were 95 medical workers, who participated in emergency rescue teams following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China. A response rate of 93·7% achieved. Method. The questionnaire included questions relating to nurses: previous experience in disaster relief; scope of practice at the disaster site; optimal ratio of medical practitioners to nurses in disaster relief teams. Results. Following a disaster, first responder nurses considered most suitable were those with at least three years clinical experience, particularly in the emergency department or having emergency rescue skills training. The scope of practice for disaster relief nurses was different to that of nurses working in a hospital. The majority of participants reported insufficient nurses during the relief effort, concluding the optimal ratio of medical practitioner to nurse should range between 1:1-1:2 depending on the task and situation. Conclusion. At the scene of disaster, the preferred first responder nurses were nurses: with emergency rescue training; experienced in the emergency department; with at least three years clinical experience. The scope of practice for first responder nurses needs to be extended. Appropriate nurse - medical practitioner ratios in responding medical teams is dependant on the specific medical requirements of the disaster. Relevance to clinical practice. The recommendations made by this study provide a guide to ensure that nurses can contribute effectively as essential members of first responder emergency disaster relief teams.