In order to prepare the healthcare system and healthcare personnel to meet the health needs of populations affected by disasters, educational programs have been developed by numerous academic institutions, hospitals, professional organizations, governments, and non-government organizations. Lacking standards for best practices as a foundation, many organizations and institutions have developed "core competencies" that they consider essential knowledge and skills for disaster healthcare personnel. The Nursing Section of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine (WADEM) considered the possibility of endorsing an existing set of competencies that could be used to prepare nurses universally to participate in disaster health activities. This study was undertaken for the purpose of reviewing published disaster health competencies to determine commonalities and universal applicability for disaster preparedness. In 2007, a review of the electronic literature databases was conducted using the major keywords: disaster response competencies; disaster preparedness competencies; emergency response competencies; disaster planning competencies; emergency planning competencies; public health emergency preparedness competencies; disaster nursing competencies; and disaster nursing education competencies. A manual search of references and selected literature from public and private sources also was conducted. Inclusion criteria included: English language; competencies listed or specifically referred to; competencies relevant to disaster, mass-casualty incident (MCI), or public health emergency; and competencies relevant to healthcare. Eighty-six articles were identified; 20 articles failed to meet the initial inclusion criteria; 27 articles did not meet the additional criteria, leaving 39 articles for analysis. Twenty-eight articles described competencies targeted to a specific profession/discipline, while 10 articles described competencies targeted to a defined role or function during a disaster. Four of the articles described specific competencies according to skill level, rather than to a specific role or function. One article defined competencies according to specific roles as well as proficiency levels. Two articles categorized disaster nursing competencies according to the phases of the disaster management continuum. Fourteen articles described specified competencies as "core" competencies for various target groups, while one article described "cross-cutting" competencies applicable to all healthcare workers. Hundreds of competencies for disaster healthcare personnel have been developed and endorsed by governmental and professional organizations and societies. Imprecise and inconsistent terminology and structure are evident throughout the reviewed competency sets. Universal acceptance and application of these competencies are lacking and none have been validated. Further efforts must be directed to developing a framework and standardized terminology for the articulation of competency sets for disaster health professionals that can by accepted and adapted universally.