Emergency services departments around the country continue to struggle to recruit a diverse workforce. Meanwhile, UMKC and the Kansas City community had a rare opportunity to view the documentary, Freedom House – Street Saviors, which tells the story of the Freedom House Ambulance Service experiment in 1960s Pittsburgh that taught “unemployable” individuals from the poorest parts of the city how to run an ambulance.
The event was the highlight of the School of Medicine’s National EMS Week activities with the film’s producer, Gene Starzenski, and an original member of the Freedom House Ambulance Service team, George McCary, III, in attendance.
Paul Ganss, director of the EMS Education Program at the UMKC School of Medicine, said Freedom House is a great example of overcoming adversity and an important piece of paramedic history.
“It shows that there are people out there who want to succeed, and when given the opportunity and the resources they can,” he said. “It provided a view into the history of a young profession. I think that showing the story here is important as it enhances the fact that UMKC has one of the oldest emergency medicine programs in the country.”
The film has only been shown in select cities throughout the United States, and this is the only way to view it. Starzenski travels the country to film festivals, major EMS conferences and educational institutions to keep the story of the Freedom House Ambulance Service alive. The Freedom House experiment lead to the first formally trained paramedics in the United States and formed the paramedic curriculum taught for more than the next 40 years.
Starzenski grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he said inadequate ambulance care was a major problem in the inner city. While working in the emergency room as an ER technician in the early 1970s, Starzenski met a member of the Freedom House team.
“I asked, ‘Who are these guys? Why do they have all this sophisticated equipment?’” he said. “I started talking to them, and that’s when I became interested in their story.”
Starzenski, an ex-Marine who spent 41 years in the industry with the majority of it as a medic and medical advisor for TV and films in Los Angeles working with movie stars from Bette Davis to George Clooney, could relate to the story of redemption the Freedom House paramedics represented.
“Here I am, a guy from the inner city and academically challenged, and look at what EMS did for me,” Starzenski said. “That’s what sparked me to do this movie. In my heart, I always wanted to find out more about them.”
In 1967, community activists, Phillip Hallen and Morton Coleman joined forces with Freedom House Enterprises, Inc., an outgrowth of the United Negro Protest Committee and Peter Safar, M.D., an anesthesiologist known as the Father of CPR, and other pioneers in emergency medicine to employ and bring quality care to the underserved. Recruits participated in a yearlong, rigorous medical training program and many completed their GED.
“That was the hardest thing for me: to sit down and try to learn,” McCary said. “Coming from a community that was in unrest and taking off and getting into a learning situation was very gratifying for me.”
In 1975, the project was abruptly dismantled due to political shifts in the city, but the story, which is often left out of textbooks, continues to inspire a new generation.
Today, in St. Paul, Minn., Freedom House has been reborn with Freedom House Station 51, which now houses the Saint Paul EMS Academy. More than 100 young underprivileged minorities are practicing EMT’s and paramedics because of the legacy of Freedom House. The academy offers free training, hourly pay of minimum wage, social workers, legal counsel and adult basic education specialists.
Starzenski and McCary say this is what makes them most proud
“If I give insight to one or two youths who understand the struggle of how things can be that’s what’s important,” McCary said. “A lot of people have helped me get what I’ve got. You can always boost yourself if you stay focused on what you’re trying to do, and that’s learning something.”