The First EMTs

Today when we call 9-1-1 for a medical emergency, a vehicle equipped with life-saving equipment is dispatched to your location, staffed by medically trained staff to treat you while you travel. But it was not always that way. As recently as the 1960s, if you called for emergency transport, you might travel in a paddy wagon or a hearse and receive no medical treatment during your ride. It was after such a transport that the 37th Governor of Pennsylvania, David L. Lawrence died in 1966, in fact.

The modern concept of the emergency response technician (EMT) came about due to the collaborative efforts of Doctor Peter Safar, credited with pioneering the Cardio-pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) response and Philip Hallen, founder of the Freedom House in Pittsburgh. The Hill District of Pittsburgh was a black community plagued by drugs, crime, and poverty, and the response to emergency calls was weak or non-existent. To alleviate the dire need for treatment and transport, Dr. Safar and Hallen created the Freedom House Ambulance Service in 1967. It was the first civilian ambulance service staffed by trained paramedics and equipped with a wide range of medical equipment.

In addition to providing much needed medical services, the Freedom House Ambulance service also provided much needed jobs to people in the area.  The paramedics were people from the neighborhood who had been considered unemployable. Dr. Safar trained them in emergency response. The training was intense and took a full year. The service was a great success. The paramedics reportedly took 5,800 calls their first year!

In addition, Dr. Nancy Caroline took this opportunity to study and try to expand the treatments that could be given outside of the hospital setting. Her compiled findings became the national standard paramedic curriculum.

Ironically, it was their own success that led to the demise of the program. Police called the ambulance service to help in a more affluent neighborhood, and when the people there saw the successful care given by these black EMTs, they clamored for their own ambulance services. In 1975, Pittsburgh launched its own service. They ended the contract with Freedom House and used their own EMTs, telling those who had worked for Freedom House Ambulance services that they were unqualified and would have to be retrained before they could be considered for the new service, despite their years of field experience.

Some of them did retrain. In fact, John Moon, one of the Freedom House EMTs, rose through the ranks to reach assistant chief before retiring in 2009. Another, Mitchell Brown, eventually ran the Department of Public Safety in Columbus, Ohio.

Freedom House Ambulance service no longer exists. However, the concept they pioneered of a well-equipped ambulance staffed by trained EMTs, is not only in existence, but EMTs today provide medical care during emergency transport around the country, and even around the world.


Also, for more information: “Freedom House: Street Saviors” documentary (2010)