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Pittsburgh’s Black Paramedics Who Pioneered Emergency Medicine

As part of Black History Month, Howard Hanna is spotlighting the brave men who made up the Freedom House Ambulance Service. The program, which was started in Pittsburgh in 1967, was the first public ambulance service to offer emergency medical treatment in the United States and was comprised solely of Black paramedics. Over the years, the program saved thousands of lives and pioneered the field of emergency medicine.

Howard Hanna, which was founded in Pittsburgh only 10 years before this remarkable program, is proud to salute the heroes who made up the Freedom House Ambulance Service. 

The First of Its Kind

Before 1967, ambulances did not provide emergency care on the way to the hospital. After an emergency or car accident, the police would be called to transport injured residents to the hospital. In the back of a squad car or police van, the injured would receive no treatment – no CPR, no emergency medicine. Mortality rates were high, and many did not make it to the hospital. 

That all changed in 1967 though, with the creation of the Freedom House Ambulance Service. 

Freedom House’s all-Black EMT staff received intensive training in emergency medical care and became the first team in the country to provide pre-hospital care. Thanks to their training and hard work, ambulance mortality rates in Pittsburgh dropped drastically and modern EMT care was born. 

Prior to becoming an ambulance service, Freedom House was a civil rights organization that worked to register voters, organize NAACP meetings and provide job training for Black Pittsburghers. In 1967, the organization was approached by Philip Hallen, president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, and Dr. Peter Safar, often credited as the “father of CPR,” to create a public ambulance service. 

Bridging a Racial Divide

Prior to the creation of Freedom House, Black residents had an especially hard time finding emergency transport to the hospital. When Black Pittsburghers called the police asking for an ambulance, they were often ignored or made to wait much longer than their white counterparts. 

Freedom House offered crucial emergency medical services to Pittsburgh’s Black neighborhoods. For the first time, Black residents’ emergency calls were being answered and responded to immediately. 

Sadly, only eight years after it was created, the Freedom House Ambulance Service was shut down by Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty. Flaherty cited many reasons for ending the program, but it’s widely believed that racial prejudice was the driving force in shutting down Freedom House. After the program ended in 1975, the mayor replaced the program with a new ambulance service with an all-white staff. 

A Lasting Legacy

Though the Freedom House Ambulance Service only existed for eight years, the program acted as the blueprint for emergency medical care around the globe. 

Rick Duffy, who serves as manager of quality control and review for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, was a teenager when Freedom House began. He worked at a local Pittsburgh hospital at the time and says he was inspired by the EMTs in the program. 

“In 1968, 24 Black men led a revolution in what is now modern-day prehospital emergency care,” said Duffy, who went on to start Foxwall EMS after being inspired by Freedom House. “I got to know these guys and they inspired me.” 

A documentary created by WQED, Pittsburgh’s PBS station, offers an in-depth view of the program and can be viewed here. Hachette Book Group also published a book on Freedom House in 2022 titled American Sirens by Kevin Hazzard. 

“Every life that gets saved by emergency EMT medicine – that’s thanks to these guys,” said Duffy. “They brought emergency medicine to the community.” 

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Last modified: April 11, 2023