The incredible story of Freedom house ambulance service

I learned today about the incredible story of Freedom house ambulance service thanks to 99 percent invisible. Generally the story goes that back in the 70’s in Pittsburgh, if you call for help in getting to a hospital, a hurst driver or the police would throw you in the back and take you to hospital.

A man called Peter Safar from Europe, proposed that together they could train lay people to be medical professionals and  start providing ER quality treatment right away, before the patient arrived at the hospital.

After designing advanced ambulances and putting people through a  intense 300-hour course. They had their first comprehensively trained first responders. They were all black people and operated in black parts of Pittsburgh where taxi driver, hurst drivers and the police were not reliable or wanted to go.

Its was a massive success and became the start of the profession we know as paramedics.

Group photo of Freedom House attendants and the Pitt physicians who
trained them. At front row, center, is Nancy Caroline, M.D., who developed national standards for emergency medical technicians. At far left, in white lab coat, is Peter Safar, M.D., known around the world
as the “Father of CPR.” Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh


Freedom House’s five ambulances were running nearly 6,000 calls a year. And not only were they getting to the patients faster than the police, but they were also providing demonstrably better care. At a city council meeting, Safar presented data showing that as many as 1,200 people a year had been dying needlessly while in the care of other emergency services. Freedom House paramedics, by contrast, had saved 200 lives in the first year alone. Doctors and medical directors from around the country flocked to Pittsburgh. Freedom House medics were invited to conferences as far away as Germany. Everyone wanted to see what they were doing and learn how they could copy it.

Photo credit: University of Pittsburgh; Freedom House paramedics with ambulance.

But in spite of its growing fame, Freedom House would eventually become a victim of its own success. Other neighborhoods were wondering why this predominantly Black community was receiving better care than theirs.

Of course there is more to the story but I was struck with the similarity to something Douglas Ruskoff talked about in his most recent monologue.

How Centuries of Black Strength Created a Blueprint for Economic Recovery – Black communities have for centuries harboured a spirit of support and mutual aid. It’s time the rest of the country followed their lead. However In the monologue there is something oddly similar to the Freedom House story.

Economic success in Black communities inevitably leads to white jealousy, which in turn inspires more oppression, pogroms, and murder.

And there you have it… How many other stories from the past have this same pattern. How many of these stories are happening today?

I haven’t had a chance to check out the book Douglas mentions, A history of African-American cooperative economic, but he’s right its well circulated. Here is a interview with the author Jessica Gordon Nembhard.