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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