There are very few things Pittsburghers love more than telling non-Pittsburghers all the cool stuff that originated in Western Pennsylvania. For example, the first Big Mac was sold in 1967 at a McDonald’s franchise in Uniontown.
The nation’s first training service for emergency medical technicians was founded that same year in Pittsburgh. Freedom House Ambulance Service was started in the Hill District to provide job opportunities to the neighborhood’s predominantly Black residents and an alternative to the medical transportation that, at the time, was usually provided by local police departments.
“Anything that grows in Pittsburgh, whether it’s a football team or a local beer, there’s a certain pride of authorship and ownership the city has for its things,” Freedom House co-founder Philip Hallen told the Union Progress. “On that basis, this is certainly one of them. This is particularly important because it was an important piece of the civil rights movement, as well.”
Freedom House only operated for about eight years, but it became, as Hallen put it, “the foundation for all EMS training programs and educational programs which followed.” Later this week, WQED will spotlight the lasting local, national and international impacts of Freedom House in its new half-hour documentary, “Freedom House Ambulance — The First Responders.”
The documentary will premiere at 8 p.m. Thursday on WQED and will be available to stream on WQED’s website after Jan. 16. There will also be a free screening on Tuesday at the Hill District’s Jeron X. Grayson Community Center. Tickets for that event can be reserved via wqed.org/freedomhouse.
The documentary is the first 30-minute effort from Annette Banks, who has been with WQED for almost four years and won a few Emmys for 10-minute pieces she produced. She first heard about Freedom House earlier this year, thanks to a Heinz History Center webinar.
“Once I learned about it, I did a little research and was like, ‘I can’t believe I don’t know this story!’” Banks said. “This is one of Pittsburgh’s big firsts. How is it that I know about the Big Mac but I didn’t know the very first paramedics in the entire country were trained here?”
Banks figured she wasn’t alone in her ignorance, and she began the process of setting up interviews with those involved in Freedom House and digging up the visuals she would need for such an endeavor. A lot of the photos used in “Freedom House Ambulance” were pulled from the archives of famed local photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris and the Heinz History Center’s Maurice Falk Medical Fund Archives.
Hallen moved to Pittsburgh from Boston in the early 1960s to become president of the Falk Foundation, a position he held for almost 40 years. The former ambulance driver quickly noticed that the need for quality medical care in the Hill District “was acute” and became invested in addressing “the issues of lack of services in the Hill.”
He soon became acquainted with Peter Safar, M.D., a University of Pittsburgh researcher credited for inventing CPR, and James McCoy, then the president of Freedom House Enterprises, a local organization whose services included job training and assistance. They teamed up to start Freedom House Ambulance Service, which was designed to empower Hill District residents to train as EMTs and serve their own communities.
It was forced to shut down in 1975 when then-Mayor Peter Flaherty cut funding to Freedom House and absorbed it into a recently created citywide EMS department. In Hallen’s estimation, Pittsburgh can still boast that it has “one of the best EMS departments in the country operating here.”
“That culture of excellence was established by Freedom House and its early trainees,” he said.
There’s some inherent melancholy to Freedom House’s story due to how brightly it burned before an untimely flameout. Banks recognized that and tried her best to balance the inspirational elements with the reality of “how it was to live through the downfall” as told by those who were there as it was occurring.
She thinks some viewers will be surprised by the role police played in emergency medical transport during that era and the fact that some Pittsburghers were able to overcome tough challenges to be “the people who had the opportunity to be the first paramedics.”
“I feel so privileged to be able to share this story with the world,” Banks said. “I’m very passionate about it and spreading the word. I’m very attached to the people who are in it. They’re amazing, wonderful people that I’m so pleased I had the opportunity to meet and interview.”
For Hallen, Freedom House’s legacy is that it demonstrated how a community-run program mostly supported by Black workers could gain steam during the civil rights era and ultimately become “a model for the rest of the country” to follow when establishing EMT services in other cities.
He believes Freedom House “deserves a kind of local perspective and understanding” and is grateful to WQED for helping spread the word about the humble project he helped get off the ground here more than half a century ago.
“It’s timely that this resurgence of interest now is taking place,” Hallen said. “We’ve already entered a period of great mistrust in the health care system, whether it’s vaccine misinformation or resistance to preventative care. All these things are heavy on the agenda to be done.”
“It’s good that there’s a reminder that over the years, there have been many, many positive experiences in this, and this is one of them.”