Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services needs emergency medical technicians for its staff, and in honor of the city’s legendary Freedom House Ambulance Service, it is starting a new free program to train interested residents so they qualify for those positions.

Freedom House EMT Training will begin in early March, according to EMS Chief Amera Gilchrist. Information on the program that will pay applicants as they learn is available online and through social media. Applicants need to be a minimum of 18 years old, possess a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license, and either have a high school diploma or equivalency.

The successful applicants will be paid $16 an hour through the 12-week training, she said, which includes eight-hour daily sessions. The job posting is live on the city’s website, and it will remain there for three weeks. EMS staff will review the applications and select eight people for the program. Once those chosen give two weeks’ notice to their current employers, the training will begin.

“The classes have to remain small so we can have good one-on-one success rate,” Gilchrist said. 

Freedom House Ambulance Service operated in the Hill District, Oakland and Downtown from 1967-75.  The service staffed by Black paramedics, EMTs and other medical staff proved to be better than what was available at the time — mainly police or funeral homes just picking people up and rushing them to hospitals — but a backlash from residents, mostly white, from other neighborhoods led then Mayor Pete Flaherty to drop funding for it and begin the city’s own EMS service.  The city opened a photography and artifact display detailing Freedom House’s legacy at the City-County Building last week to start its Black History Month celebration.

Certified instructors from Pittsburgh EMS’ training division will lead the EMT training program. Some of the service’s paramedics who are adjunct instructors at local colleges and universities will come in when needed to supplement instruction, Gilchrist said.  Mentors from current Pittsburgh EMS staff will be assigned to the participants, too.  

“Pittsburgh EMS does training all year round [for its employees].  This is the first time for this one,” Gilchrist said. “[So] we have a lot of certified instructors to teach a wide variety of medical classes. We will be teaching this solely in-house.”

At the conclusion of the training, the participants will need to pass two different exams —the EMT Certification Exam, a nationally recognized test that the Pennsylvania Department of Health requires, and unrestricted Emergency Vehicle Operator Course certification.  “All EMTs have to take it [the EMS Certification Exam] to practice emergency medicine in the field,” Gilchrist said. Pittsburgh EMS has instructors who are certified to teach the operator course and administer that exam.

Once participants have passed those tests and become city employees, they will move up to the $20.62 hourly rate that EMTs earn. They will also have health care, vision and dental benefits, too, and once they join Pittsburgh EMS, they will be able to contribute to the pension fund.  The hourly rate and benefits may change as the city and union that covers EMS employees is currently negotiating a new contract.

Further, “They will have all the added bonuses that comes with being a city employee,” Gilchrist said.  That includes tuition benefits if they want to move up to become paramedics. Right now Pittsburgh EMS sponsors two paramedic students a year at 100%. If employees pursue paramedic studies on their own, they are eligible for 50% tuition reimbursement. 

EMT and paramedic courses and degree programs at available at Community College of Allegheny County, the Center for Emergency Medicine in Oakland, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, Gilchrist said.

Open EMT and other positions are a nationwide problem, the EMS chief said. “Careers in pre-hospital care are on the decline,” Gilchrist said.  “That is why we are trying to implement new programs and get people interested in becoming EMTs and paramedics.”

She and her staff are getting the word out through email messages and social media, notably the service’s YouTube channel, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram.

Gilchrist said she wishes a program like this would have been available when she attended Community College of Allegheny County to earn her EMT certification. “It definitely would have made my life a lot of easier,” she said. “It’s so good of the city to fund this and help people with this program.”

Once this initial training program concludes, the city would like to offer more sessions with the help of additional funding support.

The question she has received the most about the job posting so far is that people keep asking if they have to be 18 to apply.

“Eighteen is the minimum age,” Gilchrist said. “That’s because it’s when people are out of high school and can get a driver’s license. If you have the fervor to be [working] in pre-hospital care, you can be [working] in pre-hospital care at any age.”

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.