Courtesy of Freedom House Street Survivors

A new documentary tells how a paramedic unit from a troubled part of Pittsburgh became a national model.

In the 1960s, if you were having a medical emergency, a police van would respond, not the paramedics. There were no other standardized, government-run emergency services in America at the time. In Pittsburgh, the police and firemen who answered these calls lacked proper medical training and "had little, no, or outdated equipment," according to the University of Pittsburgh.

All of Pittsburgh's residents suffered. Not even the mayor was spared. NPR's Erika Beras shares that story:

In 1966, the city's mayor collapsed. By the time he reached the hospital in a police car, he had gone too long without oxygen; he later died.

But these police emergency vehicles refused to go to some poor black areas, like the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was there that the precursor of modern EMT service was born—partly as an employment-generating initiative, partly as a way to provide emergency health care to an underserved minority neighborhood. Gene Starzenski, who became paramedic when he moved to California, tells the forgotten history of these EMTs in a new documentary titled "Freedom House Street Saviors."

"Freedom house is revolutionary," Starzenski tells CityLab. "They're the ones who started all that you see today—but they never got the claim for it."

In the 1960s, Pittsburgh's Freedom House organization helped Hill District residents with employment and voting information. In 1967, Peter Safar, a University of Pittsburgh physician (also known as the "father of CPR") enlisted Freedom House to help him implement a plan to provide emergency medical services to the neighborhood and help its residents get jobs. Safar wanted to train unemployed African American men (and later women) in the troubled area as ambulance drivers and EMTs.

Photo of Freedom House from the 1960s. (Courtesy of Gene Starzenski)
Freedom House ambulances had much more advanced equipment than the police vans that answered emergency calls. (Courtesy of Gene Starzenski)
Freedom House emergency responders were trained by doctors like Peter Safar. (Courtesy of Gene Starzenski)

By the mid-1970s, the model's success made the city government take notice, and it soon took over the program.

Starzenski says the ambulances people see driving through America's streets today all trace back to the Freedom House program. Other cities trying out similar programs, such as Seattle and Miami, were not as advanced at the time, he says. By 1974, the U.S. government recognized Pittsburgh for having the best city emergency services program, and today the city has a booming healthcare sector.

The legacy of Freedom House goes beyond Pittsburgh. Nancy Caroline, a Pittsburgh physician who trained Freedom House EMTs in the 1970s, later went on to write a seminal text that's still used to train paramedics today. Recently, St. Paul, Minnesota implemented an EMT recruitment model similar to Freedom House to make their paramedic force more diverse.

But still not a lot of people outside Pittsburgh know about this buried chapter in the city's history, and that's why Starzenski made the documentary. Watch the trailer here:

H/t: NPR Code Switch

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