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Freedom House

A moment in History

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A Moment in History

Freedom House Paramedics

One of the least known origin stories in American history is that of the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and the Pittsburgh's branch of Freedom House paramedics, an all black unit, which is credited as being the first EMT trainees in the United States. 

It is hard to believe, but prior to the 70’s, ambulance service with paramedics did not exist.  Ambulances were little more than hospital taxis and sometimes hearses that would ‘scoop and run’ patients to the hospital.  They did not render emergency services on site nor in-transit to the hospital.  As a result, many patients with life threatening injuries and illness died before arriving at the hospital or were pronounced brain-dead once at the hospital.


Dr Saffer, an anesthesiologist, who is largely credited with advancing CPR training in America took notice of the frequent occurrence of such events and determined that the first EMT program must be done with ordinary people to prove that it can be replicated throughout the United States.  Moreover, he insists that the participants must not only be men from the Hill district of Pittsburgh, a largely underserved black community, but that also the EMT program must take place in this section of the city.  So in 1967, the first class of 20 African American men graduated from a round of medical studies and embarked upon nine months of on-the-job training.  

During these medical studies they learned about heart attacks, strokes and seizures, hemorrhages, broken limbs and broken necks.  Their training included hospital visits where upon their arrival the first thing that happens is nurses hand them mops because the presumption is if they are black men in the hospital, they must be orderly.  When they go to the OB wing to deliver babies, the nurses bar the doors so they have to learn how to deliver babies by reel-to-reel tape.   Nonetheless, they persevere through the training and emerge on the other side with this full spectrum education of emergency care, which has never been done outside of a physician. 

Near the end of the training, they heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. There were riots all over the country, and the Freedom House trainees went to work.   Their first calls are in the Hill District during what was called the Holy Week uprising in Pittsburgh.  They kept the lights on in the cab of their trucks so that people could see, “oh, hey, you're from here, you're one of us.” The people and patients in the Hill district recognized that these are people that they had known their whole lives and who are doing this incredible thing. 

During their first year of operation Freedom House responded to almost 6,000 calls and was credited with saving at least 200 lives in the Hill District and the next neighborhood over, Oakland. The next year, Freedom House expanded and started answering calls in downtown Pittsburgh.


Many of these Freedom House EMTs would go on to get master’s degrees, Ph.D.s, or medical degrees—or pursue careers in politics or the upper echelons of police, EMS, and fire departments.

To hear more about how the Freedom House EMTs worked around the police establishment to deliver care to the community and other challenges; Dr Saffer’s dramatic and public demonstrations of CPR experiments; or the Gubernatorial election that changed the history of CPR, listen to the Criminal podcast, Episode 222: The Paramedics.

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