Over thirty years ago, long before television ever dreamed of “Emergency”, a quiet revolution was beginning in Pittsburgh PA. An audacious improbable experiment was begun. Over the ensuing years, it was to provide the national standards for pre-hospital emergency care. The experiment went by the name of “Freedom House Ambulance Service”and embodied the disparate dreams of several dozen people.
In 1967 Phillip Hallen advanced the idea of high quality emergency medical service. Phillip was president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, a former ambulance driver, and Chairman of the OEO Health Committee. Morton Coleman, of Pitt’s Graduate School of Social Work, suggested combining an ambulance service with a program to train unemployed and underemployed black men and women as medical technicians. Searching for an owner/operator Hallen approached the recently formed Freedom House Enterprises, Inc. (FHE). FHE was an outgrowth of the United Negro Protest Committee located at 2027 Centre Avenue. In an unprecedented partnership with Dr. Peter Safar, known as the Father of CPR; a world leader in resuscitation research; and other pioneers in emergency medicine, Freedom House Paramedics began. Starting from a base in Presbyterian and Mercy Hospitals in 1968, they became the first Paramedics in the United States.
Over the years 1967 – 1975 FHE would recruit and train over 50 medical attendants; own five mobile intensive care units, crammed with some of the most sophisticated emergency medical equipment available at the time; operate a round the clock service; and provide nationally acclaimed emergency service. This service was not only provided to the Inner City Hill District residents, but to large percentage of the citizens of City of Pittsburgh.
During the eight years of the Freedom House Service, there was a mounting pride and espirit de corps among the paramedics. Hill District residents, including patients and their families, applauded the FH service. It wasn’t that long ago that the residents of the Hill could not get anyone to come into their area to pick up the sick and ill. Not only did they get an Ambulance Service but also they received the most sophisticated emergency care of the time. Jerry Esposito, an independent ambulance operator devoted to the FHE mission, summed it all up when he said. “This was a poverty program that was meant to fail, instead not only did it work but it helped to propel Emergency Care into another arena.”
The Freedom House Paramedics had come a long way from those black unemployable individuals that were first recruited for this project. A substantial number had earned bachelor’s degrees, a few had master’s degrees, and three were in pre-med. All were functioning in the field at a level comparable to the best Paramedics in the nation. But the political winds were shifting. The city decided to launch its own mobile intensive care service. There was no room in the city plans for an independent entity called Freedom House. By early autumn 1975, it was clear that city funding would not be renewed. Negotiations began to sell FHE equipment to the city and to facilitate the hiring of FHE personnel into the city system. It was a bitter time for the Freedom House Paramedics. For eight years they had battled for survival. For eight years, they had stuck with the organization while they watched white trainees leave to assume high administrative positions with city and county emergency medical service agencies. During those years the FHE was the proving ground for national standards of emergency care.
It was a time of considerable anxiety. For eight years the city administration had been the adversary. The city police had been the symbol of frustration. Now nearly 30 Freedom House technicians would have to go to that administration for work. If hired they would have to don uniforms uncomfortably similar to those worn by the police. But the alternative was unemployment, so the majority of FHE personnel elected to apply for work with the city. For its part, the city administration, anxious to avoid a confrontation and another “ambulance controversy’ in the press, offered a Memorandum of Agreement to Freedom House. In this memorandum, signed by the Mayor, the city agreed to provide jobs to all interested FHE Paramedics, without requiring needless recertification. The city agreed to provide a training program for basic level paramedics, with an opportunity to repeat the course in the event of failure. And the city agreed to offer FHE dispatchers a course in dispatching as well as employment. Over the ensuing months all of these promises were broken. The Freedom House paramedics, who had been trained to the most exacting standards in the nation, were compelled to go through yet another course: a course that did not meet federal requirements. The FH paramedics were not given an opportunity to repeat course work if they could not pass the first time. The FHE dispatchers found themselves assigned to frisking prisoners in the city jail.
By October 1976, a year after Freedom House ceased operation, only 12 of the 26 persons who had elected to work for the city remained on the city payroll. What of the other 14? Some found work outside the health professions as secretaries, salespeople, automechanics, security guards, one as an orderly at a local hospital. The rest are back on the streets, looking for work and remembering.
Note: As of this day October 8, 2003, there is no mention of the Freedom House Paramedics in any of the training materials for Paramedics.
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Film Festivals that “Freedom House Street Saviors” has been
The International Lens Series / Vanderbilt University Co-Sponsored by: The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center