Celebrating Freedom House

Issue Date: 
February 26, 2007

To celebrate Black History Month and mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Hill District-based Freedom House Ambulance Service—the first ambulatory unit in the country trained in advanced emergency medical care—Pitt sponsored the world-premiere screening of the one-hour documentary Freedom House Feb. 15 in Oakland’s Twentieth Century Club. Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Hill House Foundation President Evan S. Frazier hosted the event, which was attended by approximately 500 former Freedom House employees, local dignitaries, government and community leaders, and Pitt faculty, staff, and students.

Freedom House staff trained under Peter Safar (1924-2003), a Pitt anesthesiologist and medical visionary who had developed a method of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The life-saving techniques performed on Pittsburgh streets and in local ambulances became the model for emergency medical care nationwide.

Weaving the concept of mobile emergency care into a local antipoverty initiative, Pittsburgh leaders combed the streets of the Hill District and the North Side, recruiting unemployed, so-called “unemployable,” and largely uneducated Black men and women to serve as Freedom House drivers, dispatchers, and attendants.

But almost as suddenly as the unlikely Freedom House experiment began, it ended. In 1975, the City of Pittsburgh launched its own professional ambulance service, absorbing Freedom House assets. The City did not give Freedom House staff special consideration in hiring—and few who got their start with Freedom House ultimately joined the City’s ambulance service.

Gene Starzenski of GenaStar Productions of Los Angeles began filming the Freedom House documentary in 2001 in his spare time, using his own funds. Starzenski, once an attendant for a North Side-based ambulance company and an orderly in the South Side Hospital emergency room, had witnessed the Freedom House attendants in action and had been inspired to tell their story. Six years and many hurdles after he began filming, with financial support from Pitt’s Office of the Chancellor and research help from the University’s Office of Public Affairs, Starzenski finally brought the Freedom House story to the screen.

The paramedic/filmmaker said he persisted in making Freedom House “to salute a life-saving idea, to honor the heroes from the streets of the Hill, to enrich the history of Pittsburgh, to celebrate the advances in paramedic care, to right some wrongs, and to spotlight the often-forgotten contributions of African Americans.”