Freedom House Ambulance - The FIRST Responders

In 1967, Pittsburgh's inner city produced America’s first EMT service. Comprised solely of Black men and women recruited from the city’s Hill District neighborhood, the paramedics of Freedom House Ambulance became trailblazers in providing pre-hospital and CPR care. Freedom House was initially conceived to respond to the needs of Pittsburgh’s African American community who often times, couldn’t rely on police during an emergency. Their ground breaking work became the basis for all paramedics training in the country. However, despite its success - racism and power dynamics in Pittsburgh shut down Freedom House, leaving its legacy almost lost to history.

This 30-minute documentary explores the rise and fall of Freedom House Ambulance. With rare archival images, the program features the story of inception from an original founder, compelling reflections of surviving paramedics, stories of the world-renowned doctors who trained them, and memories of lifelong Hill District residents.

  • Annette Banks
  • Annette Banks
  • Minette Seate
    Executive Producer
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Runtime:
    28 minutes 16 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    January 10, 2023
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • The Video Consortium - Pittsburgh: The Spring Gathering
    Pittsburgh, PA
    United States
    May 16, 2023
  • Shadyside Medicine Grand Rounds - In person and virtual
    Pittsburgh, PA
    United States
    March 16, 2023
  • Carnegie Mellon University - Black History Event
    Pittsburgh, PA
    United States
    February 2, 2023
  • Pittsburgh Premier
    United States
    January 10, 2023
    Pre-TV Premier
Director Biography - Annette Banks

Annette Banks is an independent documentary filmmaker who pursued her love of storytelling and video production after a life-changing decision. She had been trained as a mechanical engineer, working for many years in industry, but a health challenge led her to step away from that career to chase her creative aspirations. After completion of a filmmaking fellowship at the local Pittsburgh PBS station, she became an on-call producer, and has since produced over two dozen short form documentaries. Her videos have won multiple awards including four regional Emmy® Awards, two Golden Quill Awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, and a PAB Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters.

Annette found that her passion lies with interviewing and telling the stories of people who have lived through historical events and who have impacted the future through their actions.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

I was surprised to discover that ambulances and EMTs didn't exist when I was a young child, probably because we were fortunate enough not to need one.  At that time, the police or fire departments, or even the local funeral homes, would respond to emergency calls, providing transport to the closest hospital.  The term 'swoop and scoop' was used to describe how they would show up in something like a paddy wagon, put you in the back, on a stretcher, all alone, and drive as fast as possible to the hospital without any concern about bumps and turns along the way.  The highest level of medical training they would have had would be the equivalent of Boy Scout first aid training.

The first ambulance services as we know them today started rolling out in the late 1960s, and the VERY FIRST ambulances and EMTs were from Pittsburgh, my home town of over 30 years.  However, in January of 2022, I knew none of this.  I came across the name Freedom House Ambulance for the first time in a tweet from the Heinz History Center, offering school age children a webinar about Freedom House Ambulance with the opportunity to ask questions to one of the original paramedics.  I was intrigued.

My research unearthed memoirs from the doctors who were involved and published articles from the funding organizations, basically stating that the men and women of Freedom House were part of an experiment that on paper looked certain to fail, but in reality became a huge success.  I found my way to John Moon, the original paramedic from the webinar, and he in turn introduced me to other surviving Freedom House paramedics as well as one of the original founders.  

The more I learned, the more compelled I felt to share their stories and the immense pride that they feel. I wanted to capture and share the wistful recounts of interacting with neighbors and with doctors, and the smiles and laughter that accompanied the discussions of working with the other paramedics. And I wanted people to know why, despite their success, they were shut down after only a few years.

Freedom House Ambulance started out in 1968 as being nearly 100% African American. Politics and racism changed the dynamics and racial makeup of the group, and ultimately shut them down, right at the very peak of their careers.  Less than ten years after Freedom House Ambulance was founded, the Pittsburgh City EMS was less than 5% Black.

This documentary was created to give credit to the men and women of Freedom House Ambulance for their pioneering work in pre-hospital medicine. Our goal is to increase general awareness but also to provide a tool that organizations and educators can use to help share this important history.