Ambulance, Helicopter, & Emergency Services in Costa Rica

If you are from just about any modern country in the world, you probably do not give emergency services a thought.  I am from the USA, and until I actually got here, I thought emergency services and response was a given.  In Costs Rica, it is not, and it is important that you understand exactly how the emergency system works here.

For our purposes here, I consider the basic emergency services to include ambulance service, police response, and of course response to fire.

Ambulance Services

I guess everyone should be concerned about how they will get to a hospital or doctor in the event of an emergency, but those of us older than (maybe) age 60, or with health problems, or with children are probably more likely to need these services at one time or another.  Sadly, you may be in for some real problems. Ambulance service in Costa Rica is provided almost entirely by the cruz roja, or Red Cross.  In it staffed by some truly dedicated people who must make due with very little.  They are incredibly under funded, and receive the vast majority of their working income from sales of lottery tickets, bingo, and a few other sources.  The government does little if anything to help these people.  In many countries, ambulances are like mini-hospitals, complete with a wide variety of equipment and sophisticated communications gear.  The emergency techs have access to the latest and greatest medical gear.  Once the EMT reach you, you have an excellent chance of survival.  Not so here.  Many of the emergency vehicles have little more than a bed, a bench, and maybe a few bandages, antiseptics, etc.  There is almost never and communications equipment .A shocking and sad piece of information that was recently published is that of the total number of calls to the Costa Rican Red Cross (cruz roja), 38% go unanswered due to a lack of resources, mainly of personnel, ambulances and gasoline.This data shows the awful situation at the Red Cross. They are waiting on the  Legislative Assembly to approve  a provision that would add ¢55 colones (about 11 cents) to each telephone bill, both land-line and cellular.  This would add ¢2,640 million colones (us$5.5 million dollars) to their operating budget and I am sure make a HUGE difference in their ability to respond.
 I suggest you re-read that statistic if you are planning to move here to live, especially if you are in the high risk group who may need to rely on their service.  I constantly meet older folks (70+) who move to the beach where medical care is often almost non existent or if available, is at local clinics. Ambulance services in these areas may not even be available, and the trip to the Central Valley where there are well equipped hospitals can take several hours.

There are now a couple of private ambulance services in the San José area that are available on a subscription basis. 


Police Response -

There are actually several police departments here in Costa Rica.  Basically, the two involved mostly in law enforcement are the Fuerza Publica, and the Judicial Investigating Organization (OIJ or commonly Oh - E - Hota).The Fuerza Publica is who you would call if you have been robbed, your car stolen, or maybe your home has been broken into.  Sadly, as many tourists and residents here soon learn, you will likely not get much if any response.  Like the cruz roja, these police are enormously under funded and seldom have the manpower or vehicles to respond to a crime.  One recent article mentioned that so many of their vehicles were in the shop awaiting repairs, that some officers on the road from San José to Puerto Limon had to hitchhike to the scene of the accident!  Further, while a police officer in the USA makes a very decent salary, here in Costa Rica, police officers are paid only about 120,000 colones per month (maybe $250.00 per month).  For that, they work long hours and face the same dangers as any police in the world.  It is really sad, but is also why crime is on the rise here.Many people here complain about the lack of good police service or accuse them of being corrupt.  Yeah, I am sure some are.  But I sort of look at them as trying to do an almost impossible job with little or no help in the way of funding.

The Judicial Investigating Organization, OIJ, is a step up from the Fuerza Publica and it is this group that does the major investigative case work.  As with all the other police groups, they too are inadequately funded to do their job.  Amazingly, they do solve a very large majority of the major crimes committed here, and they also receive considerable better training.  They also work with the other security services in Costa Rica and with Interpol.  They appear to be a very professional group.


Fire Response -

Talk about another tough way to make a living!

Response time for the firemen (bomberos) varies with the distance from firehouse to fire.  The ability to fight the fire depends on adequate supplies of water.  Many areas in Costa Rica do not have fire hydrants, so these guys really have a to make do.  Big fires, like the recent hospital fire at Calderon Guardia, are covered live on TV, and I am always amazed at just how GOOD a job these guys do often without the latest in firefighting equipment.



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