A Legacy of Life-Saving Care

Tom Daley

In honor of Black History Month, Team Rubicon recognizes the Freedom House Ambulance Service, the Black ambulance service that inspired today’s EMS.

In order to better appreciate the contributions of Black Americans, Team Rubicon is using Black History Month to learn and share the stories of Black trailblazers in our line of work: Emergency management and disaster response.

Our second profile is of a group whose work has had a profound impact on the many Greyshirts who serve as first responders. Today, we recognize the Freedom House Ambulance Service, the Black ambulance service that helped establish the training program and procedures for modern Emergency Medical Service (EMS) systems.

A Freedom Hill Ambulance Service crew.

The Freedom House Ambulance Service was founded in 1967 to serve the predominantly Black community of the Hill District in Pittsburgh. Prior to the mid-sixties, most ambulance service was provided by the police who would typically rush people to the hospital in the back of a police van. 

During an emergency, many residents of the Hill District were reluctant to call the primarily white Pittsburgh police force. And when they did call, the police were often slow to respond. These racial tensions existed against the backdrop of a community that desperately needed emergency medical care. George McCrary, a Freedom House paramedic, describes the Hill District of the 60’s and 70’s saying, “People had seizures, strokes, gunshots, stabbings, heart attacks, the whole nine yards, right here in this area.

Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the late 1960’s.

Freedom House, a civil rights organization that offered job training and assistance to Black Pittsburghers, began to address the need in the Hill District by recruiting paramedics from within the community. Many of the people they recruited were Black men who had experienced long-term unemployment, had criminal records, or were veterans of the Vietnam War. Freedom House worked closely with Dr. Peter Safar, known as the “Father of CPR,” to design and implement a revolutionary 32-week training program that would turn these recruits from the Hill District into world’s first, first responders. 

Their training included 300 hours of anatomy, physiology, CPR, advanced first aid, nursing, and defensive driving instruction. Deployed at first in donated and refitted ambulances, the Freedom House paramedics were soon breaking medical ground by offering unheard of emergency care to patients en route to the hospital.

During their first year of operation, Freedom House responded to almost 5,800 calls and transported more than 4,600 patients.

A Freedom House paramedic demonstrates how to perform CPR.

In the Hill District, where slow ambulance response times had once been a source of contention between residents and police, they had a typical response time of less than ten minutes. According to data collected by Dr. Safar, the Freedom Hill paramedics saved 200 lives in that first year. Gene Starzenski, filmmaker of the documentary Street Saviors witnessed the work of the Freedom House paramedics first-hand and attributes their effectiveness to their compassion for the community. “That’s the number one thing they brought to the table” he says, “they cared.

Despite facing racism from hospitals, patients, and local government, Freedom House paramedics came to be known for the high standard of care they provided. Eventually, even the police began to request them for urgent, life-threatening calls throughout the city. 

As Freedom House became a leader for ambulance services in the U.S. and internationally, they helped develop the first national training standards for paramedics and the first nationally recognized design for ambulances. 

Freedom House ambulances had much more advanced technology than police vans used to answer emergency calls.

By 1975, Freedom House had instituted ongoing training for their paramedics in unprecedented areas such as intubation, cardiac care, and I.V. drug administration. That year, when the U.S. Department of Transportation and the White House came together to form the intra-agency council on emergency medical services, they adopted Freedom House’s training regimen as their pilot course. Thus, the innovative techniques that the Freedom House paramedics had pioneered became the national training model for EMS programs in the U.S.    

Though highly regarded throughout the medical field and beloved by residents of the Hill District, the Freedom House Ambulance Service was forced to stop operation at the end of 1975 when the mayor of Pittsburgh instituted a citywide ambulance service. Most of the Black paramedics who had served on the ambulance crews for Freedom House were excluded from comparable work within this new system. 

Freedom House paramedics treating a patient.

The legacy of the Freedom House Ambulance Service lives on in the training that today’s first responders receive and the high quality of medical care that they give their patients. By refusing the status quo and raising the standard of care in their own community, the Black paramedics at Freedom House raised the standard of care for all. Team Rubicon strives to follow their example.

We believe that by setting a new standard for disaster response within underserved communities of color, we can raise the bar for disaster response nationwide and worldwide. 

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