Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Tuesday, August 9, 2022: Maximum Shelf: American Sirens

Hachette Books: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard

Hachette Books: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard

Hachette Books: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard

Hachette Books: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard

American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics

by Kevin Hazzard

Kevin Hazzard shines a spotlight on a greatly underappreciated part of history through the provocative story of Freedom House in Pittsburgh and the first U.S. paramedics in American Sirens.

Prior to 1968, a call for an ambulance meant local police would show up with a wagon or some other transport vehicle, toss the injured or dying person in and speed off to a hospital, while the hapless victim rolled around untethered in the back. Whether the person died or lived was not the fault of the police: officers were blameless because they lacked any medical training whatsoever, and neither ambulances nor the concept of first aid as we know it existed at the time. Post-World War II, American ambulances were, in Hazzard's words, "staffed by attendants with all the expertise of a lifeguard at a public pool." Thankfully, along came Dr. Peter Safar. Credited as the father of CPR, Safar envisioned a group of civilian ambulance crews capable of both answering medical emergency calls and rendering preliminary medical care at the scene of an accident and while en route to a hospital. These ambulance crews would eventually become known as paramedics.

Safar lacked the financial backing for his vision, until he connected with Freedom House, founded by Jim McCoy and Phil Hallen. Freedom House's main focus was giving Black residents of The Hill, one of the poorer sections of Pittsburgh, a leg up in the world. Safar asked Hallen and McCoy to gather 44 potential students willing to sign up for a 300-hour, eight-month training course to prepare themselves for a job that technically didn't exist yet. When the pair expressed reservations, Safar waved them off, saying, "I'm trying to train people, who don't have the slightest bit of training, to be professionals... I want ordinary people." On day one, ages in the classroom ranged from 18 to 60, and 12 of the men hadn't graduated from high school. To add to the farfetched nature of the situation, Safar was a white scientist and clinician with big ideas, but lacked any semblance of credibility with the assembled students. Nevertheless, he persisted.

The course would begin with 50 hours of instruction in anatomy and physiology. "Students would then take CPR, advanced first aid, defensive driving, the fundamentals of nursing, and medical ethics and legalities.... It would be an intense program of study, what one historian has called 'exponentially more training than any non-physician civilian ambulance crew ever obtained.' " The 44 students were whittled down to 25, and the eight-month course stretched into nine. Hospital staff mistrusted the newly minted paramedics, the police argued with them, and white residents refused to be touched by uniformed Black men trying to save their lives.

Just as Freedom House's ambulance services were beginning to develop trust within the community, in 1970 a newly elected racist mayor set out to destroy everything the paramedics had accomplished. A story of hope and fierce determination turned into a tragedy as Mayor Flaherty replaced the trained paramedics with lesser trained white men who had been given textbook knowledge only and lacked in-the-field medical training. The Freedom House professionals were begrudgingly allowed to ride in the back of the vehicles and carry a medical bag, but not to touch a patient. A lot of Freedom House staff quit over the insult, while others were pushed out after failing exams that they were notified about at the last minute or not notified about at all.

Telling his story in a non-linear fashion, Hazzard lends an immediacy to the narrative by providing readers with a sudden change in perspective. For instance, he turns repeatedly to Freedom House paramedic John Moon. One day, Moon heard over his radio that police were dealing with a vagrant screaming at passersby in Pittsburgh's Market Square section: "[T]hey watched from a distance, sifting through a thousand scenarios for the one that brought this... whatever you wanted to call it, to an end the quickest. Contain and control." Moon arrived to find the cops wrestling the man--"scared, angry and disoriented, rapidly becoming unspooled in the street"--to the ground. Seeing things were about to get worse, Moon approached the man and the cops, "the way he would approach any scene. Like a drop of reason in the swirling waters of chaos." He then addressed the police, "I know him. Why don't you let me have a word?" The cops warily released their captive and the situation was diffused. Moon got within whisper distance of the man on the ground and said, " 'It's John.' A smile. 'Remember?' "

From the hopeful beginnings to the tragic consequences that befall John Moon and all the other larger-than-life characters on these pages, Hazzard serves up a history lesson of systemic racism negating logic; it's designed to enlighten, enrage and caution readers to never repeat. Someday society may learn to put aside petty prejudices, but until then, books like American Sirens exist as a not-so-gentle reminder to do so as soon as possible. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis  

Hachette, $30, hardcover, 336p., 9780306926075, September 20, 2022

Hachette Books: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics by Kevin Hazzard

Kevin Hazzard: Chasing the Truth

Kevin Hazzard
(Bonnie J. Heath Photography)

Freelance journalist and author Kevin Hazzard (A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back) spent almost a decade working as a paramedic, which made him a sought-after voice on emergency medicine and garnered him work as a film and TV writer. Hazzard's American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics (Hachette, September 20, 2022) focuses on the little-known history of Freedom House, where the first paramedics were trained and the struggles they endured because they were Black.

Can you share with readers how you discovered and then committed to writing what would become American Sirens?

After publication of my first book, a stranger e-mailed to say, "Sure you've written about how things are now, but do you know how they started?" Naturally I didn't. I began looking around and buried there were the threads of a story that I was pretty sure none of us knew. Of course, when I started pulling on them, what came loose was this vast, incredible story. Uniquely American. I was hooked immediately.

Paramedic John Moon is the compelling real-life character who ties together much of the narrative. What was your first impression of him?

Open. John has been through an awful lot in his life and could be excused for being, as so many people in his position are, embittered. But he wasn't. He took an unsolicited call from a total stranger and spoke freely and honestly about himself. John wants the world to know what the people of Freedom House did, and if that means fielding random phone calls and spilling the most painful parts of his past, so be it. He was a Freedom House medic but, more than that, he sees himself as steward of a larger enterprise. Over time, that spirit infected me as well. Guided by someone like John, with his incredible outlook, how could it not?

Moon is one of a handful of paramedics who survived the tragic dissolution of Freedom House. How do you account for his resilience?

His personal journey. By the time the lights went out in October 1975, John had taken the worst the world can throw at you, and he'd learned to survive all that by marshalling a hidden reserve of inner strength. We all have that strength, but some of us haven't needed to call upon it and so aren't aware we possess it. John had spent his life dipping into that reserve. When he needed strength, he knew right where to find it.

What was your process of turning his trauma into words on paper?

I had the general bones of the story from what I'd gleaned from interviews and newspaper accounts from the era. So I knew where the story was going. But to find the drama and humanity I needed John. We'd done dozens of hours of interviews before I started writing, and then dozens more after. For each section, I would ask him specific questions and see what he had to say. I used his perspective and challenges, as well as those of others, as a north star. Whether it was how they got into EMS, how they responded to the city's hostility or their feelings on how things ended, I knew as long as I stayed true to their experience, I wouldn't get lost.

Pittsburgh's Mayor Flaherty was a particular thorn in the side of Freedom House's emergency services in the 1970s. Has there been any progress in the region since those tumultuous days?

A tremendous amount has changed. Mayor Flaherty left office not long after the merger [with a citywide service] and much of the animosity that had been there went with him. But that change also resulted in the erasure of Freedom House. The history wasn't passed on. But that's beginning to change. There's an EMS academy in Pittsburgh now that bears the Freedom House name. The Heinz History Center has an exhibit about Freedom House. John has appeared on features produced by the local news. Slowly the world is waking up to this unique piece of history.

You spent almost a decade working as a paramedic. Is there an emergency call that still makes you smile?

One afternoon, my partner and I got called about a two-year-old choking. We arrived in a cloud of brake dust and adrenaline to find our two-year-old patient was actually a 90-pound pit bull named JJ with a bone stuck in his throat. A rather unusual and somewhat intimidating patient. He had a mouth full of teeth like a shark and I wasn't eager to lose a finger but I stuck my hand down there and got it out. JJ was a good boy.

Any incident from your paramedic days that still haunts you?

Of course. There are the terrible things you see and that leave you with the understanding that, wherever you go, someone close by is suffering unimaginably. But what comes back to me in the quiet moments before I fall asleep are the mistakes I made. There are people who aren't here because on the night they needed me I was less than perfect.

Any plans to turn American Sirens into a film or TV project?

Yes. No. Maybe. Wait, what's television? The story has been optioned but Hollywood is a staggeringly convoluted town and how/when/if something will eventually get made is an impossible question to answer. I hope so. It deserves to be. Can we send this to Spike Lee?

Is there some future project you feel comfortable teasing out to readers?

I'm working on a true crime story (filled with wild history that's significant to our moment) set in Los Angeles in the '50s. It involves cops, criminals, crusaders, a world-champion swimmer-turned-actor. Much like American Sirens, what floors me about this story is how much things haven't changed, how we're continuing to fight the battles we fought half a century ago. As Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

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