The surprising history of paramedics

Few people know the origin of the first fully-trained paramedics. Even EMTs in the city of the profession’s birth (Pittsburgh) probably don’t.

Paramedics and EMTs are a relatively recent creation. In the 50s and 60s, there was really no emergency medicine. Hospital Emergency Rooms often weren’t open 24 hours a day. Transport to a hospital was typically carried out by the police transporting accident victims in the back of a paddy wagon or sometimes even by a mortician in the back of a hearse (someone close to me experienced waking up in a hearse on the way to hospital).

There was no on-site emergency medicine performed, and on the ride to the hospital, cops would sit in the front with the unattended victim in the back.

I learned the history listening to a fascinating podcast on the subject. It’s called “Freedom House Ambulance Service” from the “99% Invisible” podcast. The story includes the “Father of CPR,” Dr. Peter Safar, training a group of young Black men deemed “unemployable,” competition between the fledgling paramedics and racist police departments, contending with racist accident victims, and much more.

You can listen to it or read it here:
https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/freedom-house-ambulance-service/

The story is very relevant today. Back in the 60s, the responsibility of picking up and transporting injured and dying patients to the hospital fell mostly on the police force. They had little training, inadequate equipment, and mortality rates for patients was high.

As we examine the myriad responsibilities placed on our police and the sometimes disastrous outcomes and tragic results, the story of Freedom House Ambulance Service provides an example of how we might better serve those experiencing domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, and more. Why not provide services of people trained specifically in those areas rather than just leaving it to the police?

We take EMTs and paramedics for granted today. It wasn’t the case just a few decades ago.

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