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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Before 1967, the best ambulances had little more than oxygen bottles, suction units and gurneys. In Pittsburgh, they were privately owned and responded to calls in certain neighborhoods.
In other neighborhoods, people rode to the hospital in the back of a police paddy wagon or a funeral home hearse.
History turned on its ear in 1967 when the Freedom House Ambulance Service was born in the Hill District. It started because black people were excluded from the most rudimentary of ambulance service. It ended as the national model for the services we take for granted today.
About 75 people gathered Thursday at 2021 Centre Ave. to celebrate those who rode the crest of a wave for eight years without peer. A plaque was unveiled, and city Emergency Medical Services personnel were on hand, their ambulances bearing the logo of the Freedom House Ambulance Service.
"It's nice to know where our service has its roots," said Mike Huss, the city's deputy public safety director.
In January 1967, James McCoy Jr. had just founded Freedom House Enterprises, a community empowerment agency, when Phil Hallen, then president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, proposed they go after War on Poverty funds to train residents to provide emergency medical care in their own neighborhood.
Hallen had driven an ambulance as a doctoral student at Syracuse University in New York, and was incensed there was no service in the Hill, he said: "The situation was unacceptable."
The foundation granted "not more than $75,000," Hallen recalled, "but it leveraged money from the poverty program and Ford Foundation."
Peter Safar, an Austrian-born physician known as the father of CPR, headed the anesthesiology department at the University of Pittsburgh at the time. With Nancy Caroline, also a physician, he trained 50 men and women, some of whom had background as hospital orderlies and military medics, some of whom were unemployed.
"We were considered the least likely to succeed," said John Moon, who later was the city's assistant chief of Emergency Medical Services. The city established its service in 1975 based on that of Freedom House but hired few of the Freedom House ambulance workers.
Larry Underwood had been an Army medic but flunked the test the first time, he said, laughing. "I played catch-up with these guys who were so-called hard-core unemployed."
As former ambulance workers spotted familiar faces in the crowd, they threw their arms around each other, laughed, rocked and hugged again.
"My crew chief!" Underwood proclaimed, grabbing Harold Holland in a bear hug.
Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement for the Hill House Association, organized the event as part of the Hill House's 50th anniversary. She said it has been "one of the best projects I've worked on. Such a great story."
"For a while there, we were buried," said Walter Brown, who became assistant director of the service. "People didn't know Freedom House had ever existed."
Gene Starzenski knew. His 2009 documentary, "Freedom House Street Saviors," ''is the reason we're all gathered here," Underwood said. "None of this would have come out if Gene hadn't put 10 years of his life into it."
In the early 1970s, Starzenski worked for Tri Rivers Ambulance Co. on the North Side. Freedom House ambulances were traversing the Hill, Downtown and Oakland in a year-to-year contract with the city.
"We thought we were hot stuff with a suction unit mounted to the wall," Starzenski said, "When I saw what they had (defibrillators, EKG monitors, intubation equipment and blood pressure cuffs), I thought, 'What the heck?' " Some people disparaged the units out of racism, he said, "but I saw them working out of Presby (UPMC's Presbyterian Hospital) and applied for a job." There were no openings.
He found work in Los Angeles, working as a medic on movie shoots for more than 30 years. He pitched the idea of a documentary about the Freedom House Ambulance Service to producers and directors but ended up going it alone.
He spent 10 years and about $140,000 of his own money tracking down 15 ambulance workers, with the help of George McCary III, and learning their stories.
"We took a dream that was Phil Hallen's and made it real," Moon told the gathering. "We profoundly affected peoples' lives with unprecedented pre-hospital care. We were able to prove something during those eight years, to ourselves and our community."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com
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