WEB EXTRA: Documentary film captures story of America's first paramedics

Oct 8, 2013

The story behind the country's real first ambulance system carries themes of race and class. It was created in the late 1960s. Up until then, police would take patients to the hospital in wagons that weren't equipped with gurneys or medical equipment.

“And they would put the person on that little stretcher, and through them in the back of the paddy wagon and slam the door and go as fast as they can. People were dying from this,” a woman says in the film.  

At the time, a report came out that showed that more people were dying on the way to the hospital than the number of American troops dying in Vietnam. So Dr. Peter Saffer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania decided to create the first mobile intensive care unit – what we today consider a regular ambulance.

But what's surprising about his story is that for his first crew, he literally recruited unemployed people off the street, offering them a chance at an education and a job in emergency medicine. And they all happened to be African American.

For more information about the documentary Freedom House: Street Saviors, visit the film’s website