American Sirens

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

Author: Kevin Hazzard

Completed: Jan 2023 (Full list of books)

Overview: Everything we take for granted had to start somewhere and it’s fascinating to me that emergency medicine, as we know it now, started just before my lifetime. It seems obvious, if someone is hurt, you go to them, provide care, and get them to more care quickly, but until the 1970’s, that second step was mostly missing. This is a amazing look at the history behind the first paramedics including the push back they got from established medicine, racist politicians, and a skeptical public… Then after overcoming it all, they were mostly forgotten.


  • What they [the 1968 Kerner Commission] reported back—that recent violence in Black communities was rooted in racism, police brutality, and poor prospects for advancement—probably shouldn’t have taken so long to find. “What white Americans have never fully understood,” the report declared, “but what the Negro can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
  • “What we are searching for is some method… of lessening the effects of bigotry and hatred.” Specifically, the goal was to patch holes that systemic racism had cut into the public health safety net.
  • Asked why he’d left a union job to join the civil rights movement, McCoy said, “A person does not get into the movement. The movement is in a person.”
  • They were men who existed on the margins and were looking for a way to get ahead, gambling on a long shot. Their ages ranged from eighteen to sixty. Nearly half hadn’t completed high school. One had just a sixth-grade education.
  • Pittsburgh was in the midst of a ballooning heroin epidemic and a corresponding surge in overdoses. But looking around, people noticed heroin-related deaths were climbing in white neighborhoods even as they were dropping in Black ones. The reason was simple. Safar had taken a drug then used only to reverse anesthesia in operating rooms—Narcan—and issued it to his medics.
  • The invisible line separating the Hill from downtown was now the threshold at which an emergency vehicle carrying emergency medical technicians on their way to an emergency situation had to begin operating in all ways nonemergent. No more sirens downtown. This was something new. Hunt first raised the idea, but Flaherty made it law. The idea was to stop Freedom House’s “reckless driving of ambulances,” which they claimed not only imperiled drivers and pedestrians but also disrupted the business community.
  • Just the year before, in 1972, the Beetle had finally beaten out the Model T to become the best-selling car of all time,
  • Eugene Key said he once saw a cop drawing a chalk outline around a guy lying on the street. Cops did this with someone killed in a shooting or a stabbing or a wreck, so that even after the body was gone, investigators could piece together the crime scene and figure out what happened. But this man was still alive. Key pointed this out, but the cop just shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, “but not for long.”
  • The only way to get respect from someone who doesn’t want to give it is to walk right over and take it.
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