Emergency services in Belize are very basic and often restricted to urban centers. Ambulance, police and fire services are always lacking in funds, equipment and manpower, with volunteers tending to be the backbone of the ambulance and fire departments. The universal number for emergency services is 911 or 90 throughout Belize. In an emergency situation, response times are unpredictable, so many people look to those around them for help. Belizeans are very friendly and genuine people and are quick to offer assistance. As an English-speaking country whose people also speak Spanish, Belize's emergency personnel also have the advantage of being able to communicate clearly with many foreign visitors and expatriates.
With help from other countries and nonprofit organizations, the emergency infrastructure is slowly improving. Fire engines and police cars are being upgraded, fire halls are being built and emergency medical care is getting more efficient. However, in an emergency situation it might be a while before help arrives, so always be prepared.
Very few public ambulances exist in Belize, but there are a handful of good quality, modern private ambulances owned and operated by the Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT), a non-profit organization specializing in ground and air ambulance services. For the most part, ambulances are only available in the vicinities of Belize City, Belmopan and a few major towns. Ambulance response times can vary, but are generally quite reasonable if you're easily accessible. From remote areas, service is often non-existent, so getting to a hospital by land can take hours.
Some small towns have organized their own emergency medical response systems, directed by volunteers, the fire department or a local health center. For rural and remote areas, you'll often be on your own in an emergency. Luckily, there are some emergency air ambulance services run by BERT and the Wings of Hope, another nonprofit organization.
Operated by volunteers, air ambulances in Belize are helicopters or small planes with stretchers, oxygen supplies and a trained paramedic on board. Getting to and from the airport to access an air ambulance is up to the patient, though in some areas BERT may provide an ambulance if it's available. Air ambulances are guaranteed to be ready for takeoff within 15 minutes of receiving a call. One person is allowed to accompany the patient on board.
In case of an emergency medical situation, dial 911 or 90 throughout Belize and request an ambulance, or consider other alternatives to get to the nearest medical facility if you live in an area with limited or no service. Most emergency and lifesaving care can be handled in regional hospitals and the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City has a trauma care unit. For many serious conditions, it's sometimes best to head west into Guatemala or north into Mexico, which is often where a Belizean hospital will send an emergency patient once stable.
Emergency ambulance trips to the hospital are often subsidized or covered by the Ministry of Health if they were set up by a doctor or health care worker, though the patient is responsible for getting home. If an ambulance or air ambulance service is requested by a patient that isn't paid for by the Ministry of Health, BERT only asks for a donation to cover operating costs. If a patient is in desperate need but is unable to pay, ambulance service will still be provided.
Crime is one of the major issues facing Belize today, especially in Belize City. While Belize's crime rate is pretty close to the Central American average, the approximately one thousand police officers in the country definitely have their hands full. The problem is worsened by the police department's lack of funds and resources, which often hampers its ability to respond quickly and deal with criminal activity properly.
Due to consistent staff shortages in the police department, the Ministry of Defense will step in to offer assistance in times of emergency. The Ministry of Home Affairs supervises the police department, but the Belize Defense Force is occasionally reallocated to bolster the police if needed.
In general, the Belizean police are very friendly and many won't accept bribes. While corruption is occasionally a problem, it's not as prevalent as in other Central American countries. Response time to a call will vary by the officer and reported crime. Petty crimes will sometimes get no response at all. Violent crimes and crimes against tourists are taken more seriously, however, and Belize does have a branch of the police force dedicated specifically to tourists. The Tourism Police Officers can be found in major cities and wear navy blue pants, navy blue hats and khaki shirts.
Victims of any crime should always report it to the nearest police station as soon as possible. In an emergency situation, call 911 or 90 throughout the country. Every police station has a local number, but be aware that police phone lines in Belize are notorious for being consistently busy. A police department can be found in every major city and town and community police stations are located in smaller towns and some villages.
Fire emergency services are limited in Belize. Most firefighting is done by volunteers and firefighters are often under-trained and ill-equipped. However, the Belize Fire Department is continually growing and always pushes hard for increased funding and better infrastructure. They do the best they can with what they have, and the fire chief has recently been sending his firefighters for improved training in the U.S., Canada, England and Japan.
Currently, Belize's major cities and towns have fire departments with one to ten fire engines. Some fire engines are high-quality refurbished donations from other countries and some are very basic pickup trucks outfitted with small pumps. While there is a modest fire hydrant infrastructure in some areas, they are often in short supply and have inconsistent pressure. Fire engines usually pump water from nearby lagoons, rivers, canals or the sea.
Fires are most common in Belize City. The tightly packed timber houses are very susceptible to flames, which spread quickly. In a fire emergency, call 911 or 90 throughout the country. Fire stations each have a local number as well. In Belize City, response time is usually in the fifteen minute range, though some reports say it can take as long as 40 minutes before fire crews arrive. Response time is slower in smaller urban areas and emergency fire service is often unavailable in rural areas.
There is no poison control center or agency in Belize. The best response in case of poisoning is to call an ambulance or get to a hospital or medical center as soon as possible. Belize has several varieties of poisonous snakes, plants and fish, so be sure to educate yourself on your surroundings and be careful.
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