The story of a group of Black men who paved the way for how ambulance personnel responds to emergencies today is gaining attention some five decades later. A new book by one of the former paramedics of the Freedom House in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, tells of the rise and fall of the team of ambulance drivers that operated from 1967 to 1975. Kevin Hazzard chronicles their experiences in “American Sirens.”
Before these men became the first paramedics, ambulance workers would not provide aid to patients. Instead, ambulances were driven by police or funeral workers who simply ensured they were transported to the hospital, but the men at Freedom House wanted to save lives in their own community, which had largely been ignored.
“They were the first true paramedic program in the world,” said Ronald Stewart, a Canadian expert in emergency medicine, a medical director for Pittsburgh’s Public Safety department in the 1970s and ’80s.
The city has two commemorative plaques and an exhibit in honor of the Freedom House ambulance services.
Former Freedom House paramedic John Moon told NPR that most people who currently live in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where the ambulance service was based decades ago, most likely never heard of the long-forgotten Freedom House. He was a 22-year-old hospital orderly when he started training there.
“We were considered the least likely to succeed by society’s standards,” Moon said. “But one problem I noticed is, no one told us that!”
Former ambulance driver Phillip Hallen first recognized Hill’s need for street medicine. He connected with a local entrepreneur who ran a job-training program in the neighborhood. The pair then joined Peter Safar, a Viennese-born anesthesiologist who invented cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR, and selected their first class of 25 paramedics.
“So, what you end up with was, you know, a number of guys maybe who were fresh back from Vietnam. A number of guys maybe who were fresh out of prison. A number of guys who were in-between jobs, because literally they’re picking people up who they see kind of wandering the streets,” Hazzard said.
Safar had treated former Pennsylvania governor and mayor David L. Lawrence who suffered a heart attack and was transported by police. Safar believed Lawrence could have been saved if had some on-site care.
Freedom House operated under a city contract and serviced the Hill District and Oakland, Pennsylvania. Ambulances in other areas of the city were still driven by police. The program paved the way for innovation in modern medicine. Freedom’s House director Dr. Nancy Caroline wrote the first national curricula on emergency street medicine for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Still, the overwhelmingly white police force saw by the mostly Black team of paramedics as intruders on their turf, Hazzard writes, and a new Pittsburgh mayor, Pete Flaherty, started to withhold funding.
“There are many within Freedom House who eventually came to the conclusion that, you know, the problems that we’re having with City Hall are not what we’re doing, but rather who’s doing it,” Hazzard said.
By 1975, the Freedom House was a new citywide Emergency Management Services department. Most of the Freedom House paramedics who stayed said they were treated unfairly. Moon said he was forced to “ride as the third person on a two-person crew.” He retired in 2009 as assistant chief.
“I owe Freedom House a debt that I don’t think I will ever be able to repay,” he said, “because they’re the ones that instilled that motivation and that drive into me that I could do something no matter what it is, no matter what the hurdle, no matter what the barrier.”