What We’re Reading in July
Our book editor's best bet for this month.
“Beyond their duties, paramedics represent an ideal. An assurance from society, backed by money, that human lives are sacred and will be saved anywhere and everywhere they’re in danger,” writes journalist and former paramedic Kevin Hazzard in his second and latest book, “American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics.” He continues, “Society has often shrugged its burden and reneged on the deal. America pretended the burden didn’t exist until 1965. But it’s always been there.”
It’s funny the things we take for granted. I had always assumed that paramedics were as ubiquitous as police officers and firefighters in American cities. Hazzard’s book quickly disabuses the reader of that notion. “Regardless of who was providing it, emergency medical services suffered from an unwillingness to invest either the time or the money required to keep technicians sufficiently trained and equipped. And in the absence of state- or federally mandated standards, sufficient became a term loosely interpreted at the local level to mean the absolute bare minimum.” Typically these services were provided, if they were at all, by police departments and, in many cases, funeral homes.
Perhaps most eye-opening, though, is that modern paramedic practices as we know them started right here in the Hill District and operated out of Freedom House ambulance service. Hazzard, who has also written for television, tells a propulsive and exciting story that explores not only medical history but also politics, class, economics and race.
For all the larger historical and social issues at play in “American Sirens,” Hazzard never loses sight of the people at the heart of his story. In particular, the author offers a deep character study of John Moon, one of the very first paramedics, and Dr. Peter Safar, inventor of CPR and distinguished University of Pittsburgh professor. He spearheaded this first-of-its-kind paramedic program and personally trained the men.
“American Sirens” is a fantastic read and succeeds greatly in illuminating an important chapter in history.