Before there were such things as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), residents in Pittsburgh, Pa., would often be transported to the hospital in police paddy wagons. Sometimes, they'd die on the way there.

In 1967, a radical experiment called the Freedom House Ambulance Service was founded that provided emergency medical training and ambulances to unemployed black men and women who became the first mobile paramedics in the country.

Organizers of St. Paul’s Freedom House CPR program hope to continue the legacy of those first responders by providing free CPR and first aid training to veterans and low-income residents to help them further their careers and aid their communities during times of emergency.

“There’s a lot of people who want the training but can’t necessarily afford it...The Pittsburgh [program] was trying to get Pittsburgh to safety while employing people who didn’t have any other work,” said Nick Wilson, a St. Paul Fire Department EMT-cadet, who helped start the program.

Classes will be held once a month at Station 51, which was renamed the Freedom House in 2012. The station, located at 296 W. 7th St., serves as the home of the city’s EMS Academy, a program which certifies young, low-income St. Paul residents as EMTs, focusing on diversity.

The Freedom House CPR project has been in the works for little more than a year and is now in the midst of fundraising with classes probably starting in early June, said Wilson, a former graduate of the EMS Academy.

“It does make a huge difference to have someone there and able to handle the situation until a paramedic comes because that might not be for a good 10 minutes and plenty can happen in that time,” Wilson said.

After 10 minutes, a person's chance of survival plummets, he said.

Less than one third of cardiac arrest victims receive CPR from a bystander, according to the American Heart Association.

Twin Cities Safety, a company that is headed by St. Paul Fire Captain Tim Smith and provides CPR certification and other training, oversees the St. Paul EMTs who act as subcontractors to give the CPR training. The company also gives the EMTs mannequins and textbooks to use.

“The more people who know CPR the better because you never know what’s going to happen…Not everybody is able to afford a CPR class,” Smith said.

So far about $500 has been raised on the Freedom House CPR’s fundraising Web site. The funds “go toward building a network through a website, flyers, and other methods, so those in need of our services will be able to find us and connect,” the Web site says.

Recently, St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler donated $50 and wrote on the fundraising page, “What a great cause - teaching residents how to save a life thru CPR! Freedom House EMTs provide the CPR training - they just need help to connect with those desiring the training. Let’s help save some lives here!”

George McCary III, 20, joined the Freedom House Ambulance Service after his cousin was in the first training class and encouraged him to join. It became “one of the most significant things that ever happened” to McCary, he said.

McCary had just graduated from high school and was living with his grandmother in a housing project on the North Side of Pittsburgh when he went through more than a year of training for the ambulance service.

“It was a real treat to be away from that crime and other things that were going on in that area. To be able to go to work and actually help people…That’s a big uplift whenever you have people praise something you do,” McCary said.

McCary was with Freedom House from 1968 to 1975, when staff was given two weeks notice that city funding for the program would not be renewed. He didn’t try to get rehired into the city system or stay in the medical field. McCary, now 67, works as a cab driver in the Pittsburgh area.

However, his children -- a son who became an administrator at a hospital in New York, his twin daughters, one working in cancer research and another in orthopedics, and his youngest son who works with people with special needs -- are all involved in health care.

McCary said he supports people getting medical training because if people don’t “all you know is how to call 911.”

Gene Starzenski, who produced and directed a documentary about Freedom House, said he thought the CPR program was a great idea.

“I’m so proud of the legacy that’s going on in St. Paul,” Starzenski said.

Several original members of the Freedom House Ambulance Service are expected to travel to St. Paul next month, and viewings of the documentary are also planned.

(Photo Courtesy Gene Starzenski)