How Pittsburgh's Freedom House Pioneered Paramedic Treatment : Code Switch The groundbreaking ambulance service was created in the 1960s as the city struggled with racial tensions and poor medical transport. It trained African-American men to provide crucial emergency care.
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How Pittsburgh's Freedom House Pioneered Paramedic Treatment

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How Pittsburgh's Freedom House Pioneered Paramedic Treatment

How Pittsburgh's Freedom House Pioneered Paramedic Treatment

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The wail of ambulance sirens is part of the soundscape of every big city. But in the Pittsburgh of the 1960s, there were no public medical response teams until the city's Freedom House Ambulance Service began, staffed largely by African-American men. For NPR's Code Switch team, Erica Beras brings us the story.

ERICA BERAS, BYLINE: In the 1960s, Pittsburgh, like most cities, was segregated by race, but people of all colors suffered from lack of ambulance care. Police responded to medical emergency calls.

GENE STARZENSKI: So back in those days, you had to hope and pray that you didn't have enough nothing serious.

BERAS: Was that filmmaker Gene Starzenski? He grew up in Pittsburgh.

STARZENSKI: Because basically, the only thing they did was pick you up and threw you in the back like a sack of potatoes, and they took off for the hospital. And they didn't even send back with you.

BERAS: Ambulances existed, but they were privatized, didn't offer emergency care or go everywhere. Starzenski made a documentary, "Freedom House Street Saviors," about the city's first mobile emergency medicine service. It became the national model, but it started out serving Pittsburgh's mostly black Hill District. Now that community is famous from playwright August Wilson's work, but then, like many city neighborhoods, it teamed with racial unrest.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The food situation is critical. There's nowhere to shop on the Hill.

BERAS: Whole this is footage from April of 1968, in the aftermath of riots sparked by the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's still two huge problems here on the Hill. One is when will the stores reopen? The other one is what about the estimated 400 black men who used to work in those now gutted shops?

BERAS: Freedom House was a solution - jobs for the unemployed and providing a service for an imploding community. But it wasn't just blacks who suffered from lack of care. In 1966, Pittsburgh's mayor collapsed. By the time he got to the hospital in a police car, he had gone too long without oxygen and died. Filmmaker Starzenski also has a personal memory of what it was like before the service existed, after his grandfather suffered a fall in the early '60s.

STARZENSKI: When they came to the house, they didn't any equipment. The - you know, my grandfather - his head was bleeding pretty bad. And the only thing was they asked for a towel, and they slapped the towel around my grandfather's head, and they took off to the hospital.

BERAS: Things were more perilous in predominantly black neighborhoods where people would way longer for a police transport.

PHIL HALLEN: No one would go to the Hill District, in the same way that taxicabs were hesitant to go there.

BERAS: That's Phil Hallen, who, at that time, ran a foundation focused on bringing healthcare to the poor. He helped form Freedom House with Dr. Peter Safar, who had helped create CPR and wanted to teach laypeople to deliver care in emergency rooms on wheels.


PETER SAFAR: Get away from the idea that emergency transportation is nothing but rushing a patient to the nearest hospital. Much harm is done by not treating the patient on the spot and en route.

BERAS: They recruited young black men - some high school dropouts, most of them considered unemployable. George McCrary was one of those EMTs. Today in the Hill District, he remembers what it was like in the late '60s and '70s.

GEORGE MCCRARY: A lot of people came to a lot of activities. Seizures - people had seizures, strokes, gunshots, stabbings, heart attacks - the whole nine yards, right here in this area.

BERAS: It wasn't long before everyone was benefiting from Freedom House. In 1969, a car hit Sue Schilling as she crossed the boulevard that separated her predominantly white neighborhood from the Hill District. Freedom House responded. When the city erected a plaque commemorating Freedom House last year, Schilling wrote a letter, thanking those EMTs.

SUE SCHILLING: I don't think the men got enough credit for what they did because it was a different time

BERAS: Freedom House was so successful, it attracted the city's attention, and in the mid-'70s, they took it over. Some of the men went to work for Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services, but not George McCrary. For the last three decades, he's been driving a yellow cab. Pittsburgh's since become a health care hub. McCrary loves to tell fares the little-known story of Freedom House.

MCCRARY: You can't say you could meet the first doctor, and you can't say you could meet the first police officer. But you can say you met one of the first American world-wide EMT paramedics.

BERAS: For NPR News, I'm Erica Beras in Pittsburgh.

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