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Were the sounds of Freedom House ambulances linked to anxiety or relief?
By Christopher Cox

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When exposed to emergency medical services it is natural to respond with feelings of stress and worry. Not only is an injury or sickness distressing, but also hearing out-of-the-ordinary noises can be alarming. Emergency responders sound loud sirens, operate beeping heart monitors, and use hissing oxygen tanks. These foreign yet life-saving sounds might even heighten the sense of stress experienced by a patient or by friends and family.

 

Is it possible that these medical sounds could also be linked to more positive emotions? Looking at the Pittsburgh’s Freedom House Ambulance Service, the first paramedic response team in the nation, consider how the sounds might have linked to relief, and even a sense of pride. Founded in 1967 by Phil Hallen and Dr. Peter Safar, Freedom House responded to the acute needs of the Hill District community. The predominantly African American community living in the Hill District grappled with unreliable transport services to hospitals, as ambulances and police cars ignored or denied requests for help. Even when a patient received transport, responders were only equipped to offer basic first aid. Freedom House redefined the concept of an ambulance – it transformed a mere transport vehicle into a mobile hospital that was operated by highly-trained paramedics.

To learn more about the sounds and experiences surrounding the day-to-day work of Freedom House paramedics, I interviewed founder Phil Hallen and Soundwalk project director Dr. Nicole Vilkner spoke with Chief John Moon, Freedom House paramedic and retired Assistant Chief of Pittsburgh EMS. Hallen and Moon's reflections suggested that the sounds of Freedom House ambulances were connected to feelings of relief and pride.

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How were sounds of the Freedom House ambulances connected to feelings of relief? Since the Hill community was not sufficiently served by city infrastructure, the sound of the Freedom House siren meant that patients would finally receive timely and life-saving care. In their first year alone, the Freedom House paramedics answered nearly 5,800 calls. Chief Moon, who was the first person to intubate a patient in the field, emphasized how it was comforting and relieving for Hill patients to see that their rescuers were people who looked like them.

The sounds of Freedom House ambulances also evoked a sense of pride in the Hill since the paramedics were local heroes. Freedom House combatted racial discrimination in the work force by producing teams of highly-skilled African American paramedics, and the community was proud of their career paths to success. The program included a rigorous 300 hours of classroom training in CPR and emergency medical care, in addition to field training. The Freedom House program even
helped those without a high school diploma get their GED. Chief Moon reflected that it was not only empowering to save a life, but that it was also a great responsibility to lead his community by example. He was showing young people in the Hill that they too could follow in his career path.

In the following clip, you will hear a re-creation of the Freedom House ambulances responding to a call. Listen for the vehicle’s siren, a van door sliding open, and a clack as the stretcher is pulled onto the pavement. After the patient is transported to the ambulance, you’ll hear the sounds of medical equipment. You might hear pumps that buzz and whirr, alarms, and beeping on the heart monitor. Finally, the siren blares as the ambulance races to the hospital to save a life.

Freedom House Ambulance
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Sound clip re-construction by Christopher Cox

Would hearing a pleasant sound on a heart monitor, like a major chord, make you feel more or less stressed about being in an ambulance or hospital?
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Thanks for your feedback!

Today you are less likely to have a personal connection to first responders. That said, perhaps there are other ways that emergencies could be less stressful if the sonic experience was less alarming. Do you think the sounds of an ambulance at the equipment could be reimagined, by changing the pitch or timbre of a heart monitor? Or could ambulance sirens play heroic music like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or John Williams’ Superman theme?

SOURCES

Interview with Phil Hallen. Chris Cox, interviewer. Pittsburgh, PA, 6 April 2024.


Interview with Chief John Moon. 25 April 2024


Banks, Annette. Freedom House Ambulance: The FIRST Responders, WQED, 2023.

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