Freedom House Lifts From The Past
February 22, 2023
Academy Podcaster Becca Barrus featured Kari Dickerson, Director of Diversity and Membership for the National EMS Museum, on a Dispatch in Depth session about Freedom House Enterprise (FHE) that aired in August 2020. Barrus followed up with a Journal article published in March 2021.
The podcast and the article shared the same conclusion: The history and legacy of emergency services is so young that we ought to be treasuring every single piece of it to honor those brave men and women who came before us.1
FHE history is particularly important for its pivotal role in shaping EMS delivery. FHE, founded by James McCoy Jr., in January 1967 fostered confidence and independence for formerly hard-core underemployed or chronically jobless men in Pittsburgh’s (Pennsylvania, USA) black community. They ran an ambulance in the city’s impoverished Hill District, a place where police officers with no specialized training—as in other parts of the country—transported patients but did not treat them. Redirected funding to a city EMS system put an end to FHE in 1975.
Fortunately, a phoenix exists in the FHE saga. Freedom House has since risen from the ashes as a monument in EMS history and with renewed vigor through Freedom House 2.0, a 10-week, paid EMT training and mentorship program. The inaugural course was in January 2021.
Like its predecessor, Freedom House 2.0 was launched to encourage workforce diversity and to meet the needs of underserved communities. Training focuses on traditional EMS and on equipping first responders to help address critical, non-emergency psychosocial needs—such as poorly managed chronic medical and behavioral health conditions and a lack of access to resources to address them.2
Four years ago, John Moon, a former FHE paramedic, went on a crusade to put Freedom House in its rightful place in EMS history. “Freedom House must not be forgotten,” he said during a Prodigy EMS sponsored webinar (Nov. 16, 2022) highlighting American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard. The extensively researched book brings the FHE story to the world through Moon and others pertinent to its history.
Perseverance and determination were Moon's guiding lights. He and fellow paramedics kept going, just like the ready-for-the-automobile-graveyard ambulance they navigated through Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a once thriving area of predominantly black American communities disrupted by wholesale urban redevelopment.
“The vehicle we used had no power steering; the tires were balding,” Moon said. “It personified what we did. We never stopped, and that’s what I’m most proud about today.”
Crew members for the FHE ambulance service did more than drive a broken-down ambulance.
Freedom House co-founders Dr. Peter Safar, also known as the father of CPR, and Dr. Nancy Caroline instructed Freedom House members how to administer aid to sick and hurt people. They attended a 32-week course that included standard and advanced Red Cross first aid certificates and a week at the county morgue assisting in autopsies and learning about pathological anatomy. Freedom House members observed and assisted anesthesiologists, surgeons, and nurses during extensive hospital training. They participated in a field trial of both CPR and advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) practices during this time. Freedom House took their first ambulance call on April 15, 1967—a good 18 months before Los Angeles started their first paramedic program.3
Once on the road, the crews proved just how effective they were in saving lives. People in EMS from around the country were flying to Pittsburgh to learn more and credited FHE crews as good as an equally equipped physician in the field. A 1971 study found that 62 percent of patients received inappropriate care from the police, while 11 percent received inappropriate care from Freedom House. Eventually, police officers in need of an ambulance for themselves or a family member would call the Freedom House dispatcher instead of the police.4
Despite FHE’s groundbreaking performance, Pittsburgh’s new Mayor Pete Flaherty withdrew support (funding) in favor of operating a city run EMS system. According to an NPR review of the book American Sirens: The Incredible Story Of The Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard, some members of FHE believed that the cause was, in part, due to racism. They believed that the overwhelmingly white police force at the time saw the work of the Black paramedics as an incursion onto their turf.5
The reversal was traumatic, to put it mildly, said Moon, who was 22 and a hospital orderly when he started training to join Freedom House. The shutdown went beyond simply developing an alternative. “It was a movement to get as many Freedom House people out of EMS as possible,” Moon said. FHE paramedics the city hired, Moon said, “were treated as second-class citizens, and that’s an understatement.”
Moon was one of the few hired, but like the others from FHE, his status was not on par with city crews. Moon recalled his inability to provide hands-on assistance during a sudden cardiac arrest call. “All I could do was guide them, and that had to be kept a secret.” Not a person to back off from his beliefs and confidence, Moon adopted a take-charge attitude. “You almost had to force yourself to be accepted by the department,” he said.
Like today’s EMS, service started at the dispatch center. Ruth Gardner and Darnella Wilson answered emergency calls from a hotline at the police dispatching center in the public safety building in the emergency room at Presbyterian University Hospital. They dispatched all emergencies formerly handled by Pittsburgh Police in the Hill District and Oakland.
Wilson was one of the last to join Freedom House after graduating from high school in 1975. She started as a dispatcher and transferred to the ambulance. Wilson was hired by the city, where she worked for more than 35 years.6
Though a central character in Hazzard’s book, Moon said that it was never his intention to put the spotlight on his part in FHE. “The history of Freedom House and those who worked there had to get out there,” he said. Moon is a retired EMS Assistant Chief from Pittsburgh EMS.
Freedom House is core to the history of EMS, Hazzard said. “[The TV show] EMERGENCY! was a fictionalized version. Freedom House is the real history.”
1 Barrus B. “I Stand for Freedom House.” Journal of Emergency Dispatch. 2021; March 16. https://www.iaedjournal.org/i-stand-for-freedom-house (accessed Dec. 9, 2022).
2 “Living Legacy: Freedom House 2.0 Looks to Past, Prepares for Future of Emergency Medical Services.” University of Pittsburgh “Pittwire.” 2021; Feb. 26. https://www.pitt.edu/pittwire/features-articles/living-legacy-freedom-house-20-looks-past-prepares-future-emergency-medical-services (accessed Dec. 9, 2022).
3 “Freedom House Ambulance Service with Kari Dickerson.” Dispatch in Depth. 2020; Aug. 4. https://soundcloud.com/user-63171604/freedom-house-ambulance-service-with-kari-dickerson (accessed Dec. 8, 2020).
4 Staresinic C. “Send Freedom House!” University of Pittsburgh Press. 2004; September. https://www.pittmed.health.pitt.edu/story/send-freedom-house (accessed Dec. 7, 2022).
5 O’Driscoll B. “At Freedom House These Black Men Saved Lives. Paramedics are Book Topic.” NPR. 2022; Sept. 27. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/27/1124161896/at-freedom-house-these-black-men-saved-lives-paramedics-are-book-topic (accessed Dec. 9, 2022).
6 “How Pittsburgh’s ‘Freedom House’ shaped modern EMS systems.” EMS1. 2019; Jan. 29. https://www.ems1.com/ems-education/articles/how-pittsburghs-freedom-house-shaped-modern-ems-systems-luEDCMzLZL8XfbzU/ (accessed Dec. 9, 2023).