Living Legacy: Freedom House 2.0 Looks to Past, Prepares for Future of Emergency Medical Services

A person in a brown jacket and camouflage pants watches another person in a blue jacket lift a stretcherBefore the 1960s, when the first Freedom House ambulances hit the streets of Pittsburgh, prehospital medical care was almost nonexistent. Police with no medical training might race a patient to the hospital with no special equipment or care, and many avoided Black neighborhoods altogether.

From 1968-1975, Freedom House provided emergency medical services (EMS) training to individuals in the city’s Hill District, a primarily Black and economically disadvantaged part of the city.

John Moon was a member of Pittsburgh’s Freedom House from 1972 to 1975. “We left a legacy. I want that legacy that Freedom House left to always be remembered.” Though he retired in 2010, he’s still working to do just that.

“You get out of this career what you put into it,” Moon recently told the first cohort of Freedom House 2.0, the spiritual sequel to the original program. “You have to have a mind or heart of compassion and empathy for people you’re taking care of. Sometimes, they won’t be the most enjoyable patients, but it’s a very awesome, difference-making responsibility.

Freedom House 2.0, like its predecessor, is leveraging expertise from the University of Pittsburgh to train first responders from economically disadvantaged communities, many of which have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Participants receive mentorship and financial support, as well as state-approved emergency medical technician (EMT) certification and community paramedic/health care worker training.

Faculty members from Pitt’s Emergency Medicine program are teaching and providing instructional resources. The training focuses on traditional emergency medical services and on equipping first responders to help address critical, non-emergency psychosocial needs—such as poorly managed chronic medical and behavioral health conditions and a lack of access to resources to address them—that comprise a significant portion of 911 calls.

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Successful graduates will be guaranteed an interview with UPMC and other job placement support. They can also use their experience to continue their studies.

“Just to be able to learn more about the body and how it works, to give me the opportunity to be better for my community, going above and saving lives, it’s very inspiring,” said Elijah Sellers, a student in the first cohort of Freedom House 2.0, in an interview conducted by KDKA-TV, a CBS affiliate.

Transforming prehospital care and communities—again

Program leaders said successful graduates will become the future of EMS.

“EMS response solely to 9-1-1 emergencies will soon become a thing of the past. These folks are being trained to become community paramedics, or rather community health practitioners,” said Thomas Platt, associate professor and director of Pitt’s Emergency Medicine program. “These are folks who can now go into homes and do an assessment rather than just take people to hospitals. This in turn can help reduce hospital admissions and readmissions.”

Program leader Kenneth Hickey said Freedom House 2.0 was started as a way to increase diversity and spur workforce development during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, we noticed a great need for first responders and local community advocates,” said Hickey, who is also a program manager for community services at UPMC Health Plan. “So far, it’s been really promising. We couldn’t go without the University of Pittsburgh and its Center for Emergency Medicine for offering the training opportunity. We’re truly trying to build them a pipeline to whatever they (students) want to be in the future.”

Hickey also said program leaders compared social justice issues experienced in 2020 to those experienced by the original Freedom House participants.

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“This is one way we can give back to correct social injustice,” he said.

Program leaders and students have also been learning from the past through the mentorships of Moon and Philip Hallen, co-founder of the original Freedom House.

“This program is critical to the people in it and their life path. To the people running the program, it’s a good step in the right direction,” said Hallen, namesake of the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice. “My hope is that the sustainability and longevity of this program is in place. The people doing the training are committed, but they need the institutional support and funding. This program can be used as a model for other communities.”

Moon said the program carries on the legacy of the original Freedom House, whose emblems can be seen on EMS vehicles today.

“Any mention of Freedom House makes my heart proud, because of all the struggles and tribulations the original Freedom House had to overcome. I want that legacy to always be remembered,” said Moon. “Despite the fact that Freedom House itself was near and dear to my heart, just to see a program such as this makes the students near and dear to my heart also. Programs like this are a crucial step toward diversifying hospital care options. There’s a great need for this program. Without programs like these, underserved communities’ needs would not be met.”

Freedom House 2.0 is grant-funded by Partner4Work, the public workforce investment board for Allegheny County, and builds upon UPMC’s Pathways to Work program to offer low-income individuals meaningful job training and support.


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