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American Sirens: Meet the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics

American Sirens: Meet the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics

The Freedom House Ambulance Service saved 200 lives in the first year alone!

Founded in 1967, the Freedom House Ambulance Service became the first community-based emergency service with trained paramedics, and most of its staff were African-American. It delivered care to the Hill District, Oakland, and Downtown Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh’s largest African-American neighborhood, the Hill District, suffered most acutely from the public health crisis during that time. Studies proved that Black Americans had the least access to emergency medical care, giving birth to the Freedom House Ambulance Service. 

Trained under Falk Fund president Phil Hallen and CPR innovator Dr. Peter Safar, the paramedics used Dr. Nancy Caroline’s textbook, the first textbook for medical care that is still used today. Data showed that the extended training worked; a 1972 study of 1,400 patients transported to hospitals by Freedom House found the paramedics delivered the correct care to critical patients 89% of the time. By contrast, the study found police and volunteer ambulance services “delivered the right care only 38% and 13% of the time, respectively.”

Freedom House American Sirens Kevin Hazzard BOTWCDefibrillator used by Freedom House Ambulance Service, c. 1967.

The Freedom House had five ambulances that answered 6,000 calls in the first year and saved 200 lives! Improving over time, the vehicles were equipped with medical equipment that allowed the paramedics to provide pre-hospital care. The innovation allowed them to become the first to conduct intubation on a patient in the field and to gather data using a defibrillator to transmit information to the hospital while in transit.

“We were considered the least likely to succeed by society’s standards,” John Moon, one of the Freedom House paramedics, said on “But one problem I noticed is, no one told us that.”

Until the late 60s, your chances of survival were slim if you were experiencing a medical crisis. The group of young, undereducated Black men forged a new path for healthcare, saving lives and setting a new standard for emergency medicine. Creating the rules as they went and battling racism from all angles — community, police, and government — the group changed the course of emergency care forever. 

Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty thought he could create a better system and replaced Freedom House with an all-white paramedic corps. Though John Moon kept his job, most of the Black paramedics did not. According to the National Library of Medicine, today, the proportion of EMS professionals identifying as Black is 5% among EMTs and 3% among paramedics. 

American Sirens The Freedom House First Black Paramedics
John Moon, Peter Safar, and Nancy Caroline exceeded expectations; the legacy of the Freedom House lives on! Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh continues to contribute to the development of innovative training and treatments in emergency services. UPMC and UPMC Health Plan are currently piloting a project, Freedom House 2.0, that is designed to “recruit, train, and employ first responders from economically disadvantaged communities.” Additionally, American Sirens is a new book that aims to tell the story of the Freedom House and the Black men who became America’s first paramedics. Written by Kevin Hazzard, a paramedic and acclaimed journalist, the book tells the story of Freedom House’s accomplishments as well as its demise. With Moon as a key figure, it shares how he followed in the footsteps of two Black male paramedics who helped a patient on a stretcher and was giving orders in an attempt to save the victim’s life. American Sirens also highlights Peter Safar, the Austrian physician who invented CPR in the 1950s while working in Baltimore. According to Time, he lost his daughter in 1966 after she didn’t get the right help between the house and the hospital; she died because of an asthma attack. He “coped with the loss” by designing the modern ambulance from the medical equipment to the paint scheme.

Freedom House Ambulance Service Black Paramedics Group photo of employees of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, c. 1970s.
Photograph by Jim Spiegel, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Although there is little information on each individual Black paramedic, Hazzard is making sure more people know about the Freedom House. Starting out as a delivery service for food for those in need, it responded to the health crisis in Black communities by providing emergency medical care. Before the Freedom House, those in medical crisis were transported by police or volunteers. If your life was ever saved in the back of an ambulance, remember that the courageous and compassionate men who started at the Freedom House made it possible!

Photos courtesy of: Heinz History Center, Amp Project