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'Freedom House Ambulance' shares stories of Black emergency personnel

Filmmaker Annette Banks was amazed to learn of a Black ambulance company in her own city that had changed national expectations about pre-hospital care before getting pushed out of business by politics and racism.

Multiple Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Annette Banks’s chance encounter with a webinar introduced her to Freedom House Ambulance Service, which was the first emergency medical service in the nation to staff its ambulances with paramedics who were trained beyond offering basic first aid. And the more stories she heard from pioneering emergency medical technicians who’d staffed its ambulances, the more she wanted to hear.

“I’ve been in Pittsburgh now 30 years, and I had never heard of Freedom House Ambulance,” Banks said. “I realized what a big story it was, and I set about changing that. It’s the story of the very first EMTs in our country. The story’s also about politics and racism in our country.

“The men I interviewed were really proud of what they did. Before then, in the 1960s, there was no such thing as an ambulance with oxygen and an EMT in it.”

Her resulting documentary, “Freedom House Ambulance: The First Responders,” will be screened at 7 p.m. Saturday in Vinegar Hill Theatre as part of the latest Indie Short Film Series.

Banks said she looks forward to attending the Charlottesville screening and introducing local audience members to a story that needs to be shared.

“What I would like people to say is, ‘Wow. I need to tell people about this. I need to spread the word,’” Banks said. “What I want more than anything is for the name Freedom House Ambulance to be common to give them a little bit of the credit they deserve.”

Freedom House Ambulance Service was founded in 1967 and began operating in 1968 to serve the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a predominantly Black neighborhood. The high training levels of its personnel changed the kind of care patients could receive on their way to the hospital. The service got contracts from the city of Pittsburgh to respond to emergencies in the downtown area and in Black neighborhoods, and at a time when slow response times to Black neighborhoods was a contentious issue, Freedom House Ambulance’s prompt arrivals were praised.

Dr. Nancy Caroline, the service’s medical director, made sure the EMTs received training in intubation, intravenous medication, cardiac care and other procedures that are common today. The new standards shaped the first curriculum for paramedics.

“They literally wrote the book on paramedic training,” Banks said. “They were the pioneers.”

Most of the paramedics were men, but not all. “There were women, and they actually were trained as paramedics,” Banks said.

The film was produced for WQED, Pittsburgh’s PBS affiliate. The hardest part of the process for Banks was distilling everything she’d learned to a mere half-hour of screen time.

“One of our top missions is education, and 30 minutes is tops for classroom settings,” Banks said. “I was restricted to 30 minutes, but each of these men had so many interesting stories to share. I do it, and then I had to pare it down and pare it down.”

Banks said that former Freedom House Ambulance paramedics and other staff members have accepted invitations to attend screenings in the Pittsburgh area, including events at schools and screenings presented by hospitals to educate their residents. Seeing the alumni recognized for their service at long last is gratifying, Banks said.

“I met these men, and every single one of them charmed my heart,” Banks said. “These men are getting asked to speak, which is heartwarming.”

Tickets are $20. Get them at


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