Freedom House Ambulance’s Untold Story of Unprecedented Innovation for Emergency Medical Services

The story of Freedom House Ambulance is little known to many, but it pioneered the forefronts of mobile emergency medical services in the start of the 1960s for public safety professionals. Founded in 1967, Freedom House Ambulance served Pittsburgh citizens in the Hill District and the Northside when national standards for ambulances and paramedics did not exist yet.

In a time where skills for a professional paramedic were nonexistent, Pittsburgh police officers provided ambulance service for the city by transporting patients in the back of the police cars. The revolution for better medical care was advanced by Phillip Hallen, president of The Faulk Foundation from 1963-1999, along with various dedicated helping hands. Freedom House Ambulance was designed to provide unemployed African Americans with careers through the help of Morton Coleman of the Pittsburgh mayor’s office and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. At the time, Hallen involved James McCoy, president of the recently formed Freedom House Enterprises in the Hill District, and Peter Safar MD, known from a past Savvik Says Blog as the “Father of CPR.” Dr. Safar was a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. By combining Freedom House Enterprises, a community empowerment group and the University School of Medicine, the birth of Freedom House Ambulance would begin to make historical impacts for the U.S. Unprecedented, the Freedom House team began operating out of a location in the Presbyterian-University Hospital, known UPMC Presbyterian today.

The recruited trainees from the Hill District learned first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) but learned invaluable skillsets once launching off into new realms of paramedicine. They learned anatomy, physiology, pathology, inhalation therapy, and nursing practices. The on-hand teaching moments extended to assisting anesthesiologists in operating rooms and working with nurses and doctors in emergency wards and intensive care units. As a result, charting the unknown waters of cultivating improvements in patient care would be the forefront of emergency training protocols.

Gene Starzenski, Freedom House Documentary Producer and Director writes in his world premiere booklet, “During the years of Freedom House Ambulance’s existence, there was a mounting pride and esprit de corps among its paramedics and dispatchers. City residents and medical professionals cheered the improved service and life-saving abilities. One of Freedom House’s medical directors, Nancy Caroline, MD, of Pitt, would go on to write the first textbooks for paramedics.”

Dr. Caroline assisted Dr. Safar in developing the curriculum for nationwide emergency medical services. Interestingly at the time, Dr. Caroline advised President Gerald Ford about the progress in the emergency medicine field.

Many involved in Freedom House’s success would continue to make waves in the industry. Another notable key player, Aims C. Coney Jr. assisted in fledging Freedom House Ambulance Service by creating its first governance and operational plans. Also, he raised funds needed to start Freedom House Ambulance in the beginning stages of development.

In 1975, the City of Pittsburgh began its first citywide professional ambulance service, absorbing Freedom House assets. Though the decline of Freedom House Ambulance seemed like a loss, the foundation in paving for a better future in emergency medical services proved to be beneficial for the collective good. Every life saved during the brave time of Freedom House Ambulance lead from the ambition, dedication and compassion of all participating efforts.

*The story of Freedom House Ambulance Service was provided by Kevin Parrish, RN, CCEMT-P, from a keepsake booklet of the documentary premiere, Freedom House in 2007.

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