The country’s first paramedics were Black. James McDaniel wants to tell their story onscreen
“In every human endeavor there’s a person of color smack dab in the middle of it,” says actor James McDaniel. “I could go on forever talking about people of color we don’t know about who have done extraordinary things.”
McDaniel, whose Hollywood history includes almost a decade playing Lt. (later Capt.) Arthur Fancy on “NYPD Blue,” is talking about the passion he feels for his latest project — developing a television series about Freedom House Ambulance Service. As the country’s first mobile emergency medical service, founded in 1967, it was primarily staffed by African Americans who became the nation’s first paramedics.
Before Freedom House, there weren’t any ambulances as we know them today, says the organization’s co-founder, Phil Hallen, 91. “There were hearses — Cadillacs or Buicks — and you had a cot in the back. You just put people back there.”
Back then police officers also served as first responders and would ferry sick or injured people to the hospital, Hallen says. But neither option came with workers who knew how to administer life-saving first aid at the scene or en route, Hallen says. Without additional medical intervention, many patients died on their way to the hospital. Medical training for ambulance workers — along with the design of the ambulances, including the sirens, the flashing lights and radios for talking with doctors at the hospital — were created by Freedom House.
Freedom House should be universally known, says McDaniel, since it laid the groundwork for the modern emergency medical system that has saved countless lives worldwide in the six decades since. But, he says, “I’m almost 100% confident that if you went out into the street and stopped the first EMS van you saw, and you mentioned Freedom House Ambulance Service, they wouldn’t have heard about it.”
McDaniel feels a particular urgency about changing that. He believes the story of Freedom House is the perfect narrative for this moment in time — as the world is attempting to heal and learn from the racial justice uprisings that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“This is a story about triumph of an interracial group of human beings that held each other’s hands, loved each other and changed the world,” says McDaniel. “This is what we need to hear right now. Because if we can’t solve our racial problems, then God help us.”
McDaniel and his team — including co-creator and writing partner Derek Jennings — did extensive research to put together their pitch deck for the show. Color Farm Media, the self-described “Motown of film, television and tech,” is serving as a producing partner.
A significant part of McDaniel’s early research included interviewing people who worked with Freedom House in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Hallen and EMT John Moon, who was the first person to intubate a patient outside of a hospital as well as being among the first EMTs to use Narcan to treat heroin overdoses and to transmit EKGs from the field back to the emergency room.
“Everything you know about emergency medical service today originated with Freedom House,” says Moon. “I think the beauty of working there is that we were able to overcome the various barriers and distractions that were thrown at us to deliver a system that is glorified in this country. We didn’t let our life struggles impact what we were doing at the time.”
The struggles of the Black community in Pittsburgh in the 1960s contributed, in large part, to Freedom House’s creation, says Anita Srikameswaran, a former medical reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who wrote extensively about Peter Safar, an Austrian-born anesthesiologist who is considered the “father of CPR.” Safar worked as the chair of anesthesiology at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine when he collaborated with Hallen to found Freedom House.
“In the Black community, there was a lack of confidence that a cop would come and take you, and if they did, you couldn’t be certain they would give you a fair shake and treat you right,” says Srikameswaran.
Safar had been advocating, without much luck, to provide medical training to ambulance workers when Hallen approached him with the idea of starting a private ambulance service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — a predominantly African American area composed of various low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.
Hallen was the president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, which was tasked with grant-making in service of minority communities and civil rights, he recalls. Hallen had driven an ambulance (which was really a hearse) when he was studying in Syracuse, and he knew the Hill District had particular problems securing emergency medical help. The resulting mortality rate, he says, was shockingly high.
Safar and Hallen began recruiting unemployed Black men from the Hill to receive medical training in order to implement Safar’s ideas for pre-hospital emergency care while providing vital — and high-quality — ambulance service to area residents.
Twenty Black trainees comprised the first class of Freedom House paramedics. After their first round of medical studies, they began nine months of in-the-field training. In its first year, according to a profile of Safar posted online by the University of Pittsburgh, Freedom House Ambulance Service made 5,868 runs and transported 4,627 patients, responding to an average of 15 calls a day.
“We were labeled as hardcore unemployables, the least likely to succeed. We were called society’s throwaways,” recalls Moon of the Freedom House recruits. “The one thing society messed up on when they labeled us those things is, they never told us.”
With the care and attention of the nation’s first EMTs, Freedom House became a huge success, says Hallen.
“We realized it was groundbreaking because — through medical journals and a network of healthcare media — people were beginning to take notice,” says Hallen. “Safar was developing these breakthrough ideas, and Freedom House was implementing them. The articles coming out made us realize what was going on was of national and international significance.”
Moon blames racism for Freedom House’s downfall. In 1975 the service shut down after the city of Pittsburgh launched its own ambulance service — based on Freedom House’s singular achievements. The city did not renew the Freedom House contract and absorbed its assets.
“Well-to-do people in Pittsburgh had not received the high-level pre-hospital care that the Hill District had, and they complained about it, they started calling their representatives and saying you have to do something about this.” says Moon. “Freedom House was unable to compete in that political environment.”
The city pledged to hire on the Freedom House paramedics, says Moon, but that proved to be lip service.
“They wanted to eliminate any mention of Freedom House, so the city found a systemic way of weeding out as many Freedom House employees as they could,” says Moon, adding that Black EMTs were neglected, relegated to bystanders at accident scenes and subject to constant and radical shift changes. “Things that tested your resilience, and very few Freedom House employees were able to endure this treatment.”
Moon persevered, though, and eventually rose through the ranks to become chief supervisor of Pittsburgh EMS. He implemented the first diversity recruitment program in the city. Another Freedom House paramedic, Mitchell Brown, went on to become the director of the department of public safety for Columbus, Ohio.
McDaniel says it’s both troubling and comforting to find out about stories like those of Freedom House, later in life.
“You’re not going to learn about this in school. When my kids were growing up, it’s Black History Month, and everybody’s talking about MLK, and every year it’s the same syllabus,” he says, adding that he made it his quest to discover untold Black stories, building up a formidable library in the process. “Freedom House is, quite honestly, one of many.”
Bringing the Freedom House story to the screen, he hopes, will give the operation the visibility it deserves.
“I’m just a passionate guy at this point in my life who wants to tell stories that matter about my people,” he says.
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