Freedom House Ambulance Service



Have you got your copy of Nancy Caroline’s Emergency Care in the Streets? Of course, you have!

But did you know that in the late 1960s and 1970s, in Pittsburgh’s mostly black Hill District, Dr Caroline, Dr Peter Safer and former ambulance driver Phil Hallen were responsible for setting up Freedom House Ambulance Service, the city’s first mobile emergency medicine program which later became a national model for emergency medical transport and care?

At the time, Pittsburgh, like most US cities was segregated by race. It also had a lot of unemployment and poverty. And something else that was notable was the lack of pre-hospital care, not just for black people but for everyone. Ambulances existed but they were privatised, and if someone needed emergency medical treatment it was either the police, fire department or local funeral home that took them to hospital.

In founding Freedom House, Doctors Caroline and Safer, and Hallen came up with a solution not only to provide a much-needed service but also to create jobs for ‘unemployable’ black Americans by training them to become some of the world’s first paramedics.

Under the guidance of Dr Safer, 25 men were initially recruited from the Hill District and were trained in anatomy, physiology, CPR, advanced First Aid, nursing and defensive driving.

The service was rolled out with two ambulances in 1968, and by the end of the first 12 months these new paramedics, who became known for their high standard of care, had responded to almost 5,800 callouts and transported more than 4,600 patients to hospital. More importantly, they had saved 200 lives in the first year alone.

Yet as the service grew and its reputation flourished, many locals began to wonder why the predominantly black community of the Hill District was receiving better care than them. It was only a matter of time before their disquiet reached Pittsburgh City Hall which eventually slashed Freedom House’s budget in half and passed an ordinance that banned ambulances from using their sirens in certain areas, thus slowing down their response times. The final nail in the coffin for Freedom House came in 1975 when the city’s mayor, Pete Flaherty announced that the city would launch its own new paramedic service which would be showered with the resources Freedom House had long been denied. More significantly, of the 25 Freedom House employees who joined the city ambulance service, only half remained in the new service a year later. Ultimately, only five remained with the city ambulance service, and only one was promoted into a leadership position.

**The paper below discusses Safar and Caroline’s well-intentioned efforts in developing this novel program, while confronting the racial, social, and structural constraints on the program and the limits of racial liberalism.

Watch more here: trailer

Read more here: and look forward to an article on Freedom House in the December edition of Paramedic INSIGHT.

John Moon, former Freedom House paramedic. Provided by Harvard University.