Filed Under Health

Freedom House Ambulance Service

Transforming Emergency Medical Services Against All Odds

Hill District ambulance service revolutionized healthcare, establishing a model for emergency medical services emulated nationwide.

In the blistering summer heat of 1968, the first ambulance of its kind wails down the street, and as it comes to a screeching halt, out hops emergency medical service professional John Moon. Like the ambulance, Mr. Moon is also a first of sorts. He is one of the first professionally medically trained men to serve the Hill community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) member, Mr. Moon provides lifesaving emergency medical care en route to a hospital in the back of a moving vehicle. He does all this in the name of serving his community, The Hill District.

Not only was an ambulance equipped with an EMS professional a sight to see in 1968, but even more surprising was that the EMS professional was a Black man,  at a time when America was torn by racial strife. The ability of Mr. Moon to attain such an important job and give back to his community would not have been possible without the Freedom House Ambulance Service.

Freedom House Ambulance Service emerged in 1967 as a response to the Hill community's desire for self-reliance. Before Freedom House, the Hill community - and all Pittsburgh residents - had limited access to emergency medical services.  Ambulances were driven by police officers, firefighters, or even mortuary workers, all with little or no medical training. There was no on-site or in-transit treatment, only an effort to get the patient to the hospital quickly.

John Moon describes the experience of emergency medical transportation in the 1960s as "swoop and scoop...which meant you'd call the police, and they'd pick you up, throw you in the back of a paddy wagon, and rush you off to the hospital. They could do little more than offer patients basic first aid, a canvas stretcher, a half-empty oxygen tank, and a pillow, which often only served to choke off your airway."

"And on top of that," recalled Moon, "both officers got up front. The patient was left to fend for themselves in the back of the police van. If you stopped breathing in the backseat, there was no one there to assist you."

In addition to the limited medical care, police ambulances often failed to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner, especially in poorer, Black-majority neighborhoods like the Hill. The Pittsburgh Courier regularly reported cases which resulted in serious harm or death due to police negligence.

Freedom House Enterprises, Inc. was an organization initially aimed at fostering Black-owned businesses and creating jobs in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Headed by James McCoy, Jr.. the program was a part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" initiative.

In 1966, McCoy connected with Philip Hallen, a former ambulance driver and president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, a local foundation. Hallen's experience as an ambulance driver made him sympathetic to problems faced by Hill residents, and he decided that if Freedom House could sell produce out of a truck, then they could easily shuttle members of the Hill Community to the hospital in lieu of city police ambulances.

Freedom House leadership had a broader vision for their service, aiming to go beyond shuttling to provide on-site medical care.

By 1968, two ambulances equipped with community members from the Hill hit the streets to serve their community's medical needs.

However, they faced a challenge - their staff lacked the necessary training as EMS professionals. Dr. Peter Safar, a physician at Pittsburgh's Presbyterian Hospital, played a crucial role in addressing this issue. In 1966, Dr. Safar experienced a personal tragedy when his 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth suffered a major asthma attack, fell into a coma en route to the hospital, and passed away shortly thereafter. This heartbreaking event motivated Dr. Safar, already a pioneer in CPR, to embark on developing a program for emergency street treatment.

Collaborating with Freedom House leadership and Dr. Safar, Dr. Nancy Caroline, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's medical program, created a curriculum for Freedom House paramedics. The resulting program was called "Emergency Care in the Streets," a 32-week course that covered topics such as anatomy, physiology, CPR, advanced first aid, nursing, and even defensive driving.

Early ambulances driven by Freedom House EMSs were outfitted with EKG machines in conjunction with other medications which could be administered at the scene of a medical emergency. The paramedics who graduated from this program became some of the first in the nation to possess such comprehensive medical skills. By 1968, two ambulances equipped with community members from the Hill hit the streets to serve their community's medical needs.

The impact of the Freedom House Ambulance Service reverberated beyond Pittsburgh. Recognizing the importance of Freedom House's work, other cities and communities across the country began to adopt similar models of EMS training and integrate advanced life support systems into their ambulances. The Freedom House Ambulance Service thus became a catalyst for change, racial equality, and community strength, inspiring the development and advancement of EMS throughout the nation.

But this success, unfortunately, came at a cost to Freedom House. Political squabbling and racial inequality cut down Freedom House Ambulance Service in its prime. As improved standards of emergency medical care were taken up by the state, local community services like Freedom House lost their funding.

The Hill community now had to use the same state-run emergency medical programs that underserved them in the first place once again. The closing of Freedom House reflected politicians' unwillingness to employ or allow African American folk to engage with their communities in a meaningful way.

In 1975, Mayor Pete Flaherty struck one final blow. He announced that the city would roll out its brand-new paramedic service. Not only was the new service showered with the resources Freedom House had long been denied, but none of the new recruits were African American. Dr. Caroline got the city to hire Freedom House's staff, but most of them were quickly reassigned to non-medical or non-essential duties, and even as late as the 1990s, Pittsburgh's EMS program was 98% white.

Despite this, the legacy of the Freedom House Ambulance Service showcases the extraordinary impact a single African American community can have on transforming emergency medical services. Their efforts raised standards and expectations for EMS, inspiring change, challenging barriers, and leaving a legacy of hope, progress, and community empowerment. The paramedics of Freedom House inspired generations to believe that they too could be effective and create positive change in communities like the Hill.


Freedom House Employees The founders and original staff of the Freedom House Ambulance Service. Among these faces are Dr. Peter Safar (leftmost, second row), developer of the Freedom House EMS curriculum; Dr. Nancy Caroline (first row, center), who developed many of the standards for Freedom House EMTs; and John Moon (second row, third from left) one of the first paramedics of Freedom House. Source: Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center Creator: Jim Spiegel Date: c. 1970
Freedom House's First Day Pictured are some of the first Freedom House paramedics, including John Moon (second from the left), outside the Presbyterian University Hospital. Source: Heinz History Center Date: June 16, 1968
Freedom House Ambulance Dr. Nancy Caroline (left) and paramedic John Moon in newly-equipped Freedom House ambulance Source: National EMS Museum Subject Files, NEMSM-0001 Date: c. 1968


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Kevan Whalen, “Freedom House Ambulance Service,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024,