How a team of black men reportedly became the world’s first paramedic

The story of a group of black men who paved the way for how ambulance crews respond to emergencies today is gaining attention some five decades later. A new book by one of the former Freedom House paramedics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, chronicles the rise and fall of the team of ambulance drivers who served on the field from 1967-1975. Kevin Hazzard chronicles her experiences in American Sirens.

Before these men became the first paramedics, ambulance workers did not provide assistance to patients. Instead, ambulances were driven by police officers or undertakers who simply arranged for them to be taken to the hospital, but the Freedom House men wanted to save lives in their own community, which had been largely ignored.

The Freedom House Ambulance Service was an agency that trained black men and women to provide life-saving medical care in the Hill District, a predominantly black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, in the 1960s and ’70s. (Photo: The Heinz History Center)

“They were the first true paramedic program in the world,” said Ronald Stewart, a Canadian emergency medicine expert who was medical director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety in the 1970s and 1980s.

The city has two plaques and an exhibit honoring Freedom House’s ambulance services.

Former Freedom House paramedic John Moon told NPR that most people currently living in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where emergency services were stationed decades ago, have most likely never heard of the long-forgotten Freedom House. He was a 22-year-old nurse when he began his training there.

“We were considered the least likely to succeed by societal standards,” Moon said. “But one problem I noticed is that no one told us that!”

Former ambulance driver Phillip Hallen was the first to recognize Hill’s need for street medicine. He contacted a local entrepreneur who ran a vocational training program in the neighborhood. The pair then joined Peter Safar, a Vienna-born anesthetist who invented cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, and selected their first class of 25 paramedics.

“So what you ended up with was, you know, a bunch of guys who might have just come back from Vietnam. A bunch of guys fresh out of jail, maybe. A bunch of guys who had jobs in between because they literally pick up people 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 being transported by police. Safar believed Lawrence could have been saved if he had been treated locally.

Operating under a city contract, Freedom House served the Hill District and Oakland, Pennsylvania. Ambulances in other parts of the city continued to be driven by police. The program paved the way for innovations in modern medicine. The director of Freedom’s House, Dr. Nancy Caroline, authored the first national curriculum for roadside emergency medicine for the US Department of Transportation. Still, the mostly white police force viewed the mostly black team of paramedics as intruders on their turf, Hazzard writes, and a new Pittsburgh mayor, Pete Flaherty, began withholding funding.

“There are many within Freedom House who eventually came to the conclusion that the issues we have with City Hall are not what we’re doing, it’s who’s doing it,” Hazzard said.

By 1975, Freedom House was a new citywide department for emergency management services. Most of the Freedom House paramedics who stayed said they were treated unfairly. Moon said he was forced to “drive as the third person in a two-person crew.” He retired as Deputy Director in 2009.

“I owe Freedom House a debt that I don’t think I can ever repay,” he said, “because they’re the ones who sparked that motivation and make me want to do anything, no matter what.” is is, no matter what the hurdle, no matter what the barrier is.” How a team of black men reportedly became the world’s first paramedic

James Brien

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