The History of the Puget Sound Firefighters Pipes & Drums
In 2006 while attendeding FDIC (Fire Department Instructor's Conference) in Indianapolis, founding member Michael Ray attended the massed bands parade and other events while at the conference. He then and there promised himself to someday learn to play the Bagpipes even though he had no musical training. The next year, John Corak attended FDIC and was deeply moved by the same power of the Pipes and Drums bands. John being a drummer for years was in an Irish pub when one of the bands played through. After the band had finished, John noticed there was a side drum sitting on the ground. He asked one of the drummers if he could play along with them and they graciously allowed John to play. John was doing quite well until the pipers started to play and was humbled by the difficulty of playing with bagpipes. John bowed out and the party continued on, inspiring John to further his interest with the Pipes and Drums.
In 2007 the quest officially started. An instructor was sought and an email was sent to the members of Graham Fire & Rescue. 3 members heard the call of the pipes and started instruction under our first instructor, Bill Micenko of the Tacoma Scots. After a month of playing and learning the intricacies of the Pipes, word out to was put out to other locals in Pierce County. The band started to grow into the “Founding 9 Members” of the "Pierce County Firefighters Pipes and Drums Band". The founding 9 are Michael Ray, John Corak, Tony Judd, Dan Bamford, Sonnia Marken, Steve Tank, Art Doss, Scott Powers & Brice Johnston. By the end of 2007 we had 4 fire departments in Pierce County represented and multiple other members of departments in the Puget Sound Area started showing interest of joining. During this time frame we had been approached by Aaron Weeks from South King Fire & Rescue, if we were open to allowing firefighters from other counties to join. It was an easy decision. We decided as a band to open up to any professional firefighter in the South Puget Sound region. By the fall of 2008 we had doubled in size totaling 20 members, representing 2 counties and 7 fire departments.
The founding members of the band decided early on that the musical development and professional image of the band was a priority. Luckily the band had a strong instructor in the drum corp. because of the experience of our Drum Corporal Aaron Weeks. After growing in size as well as discipline the band made a decision to hire a new Bagpipe instructor due to creative differences with our first instructor. We searched the local area and interviewed 3 well known instructors in the Puget Sound region. In March of 2009 the band officially hired our current bagpipe instructor Jeremy Shilley. Along with hiring Jeremy we were fortunate to bring on a longtime student of Jeremy’s and an accomplished piper in Jimmy Hendryx. Jimmy was a Bremerton Firefighter and has been playing the pipes since 2005. Jimmy had formerly played in the Peninsula Pipe Band and brought a wealth of experience to the band. With this experience he was asked if he was interested in leading this motley crew as our Pipe Major. In August 2009 under the direction of Pipe Major Jimmy Hendryx the Pierce County Firefighter’s Pipes & Drums debuted at the opening ceremonies of the “Pile up in Puyallup”.
Since that time we have joined up with other fire department pipe bands in the northwest to form the Northwest Fire Pipe Band Association. Through this organization we were extremely fortunate to draw from the experience and expertise of our brothers in the other bands.
Becoming Puget Sound Firefighters Pipes and Drums
In 2014 our reach as a band extended way past our original boarders of Pierce County. To help reflect our broad membership we officially changed our branding from Pierce County Firefighters Pipes and Drums to Puget Sound Firefighters Pipes and Drums in hopes to represent our membership better. Still the same band, members and goals.
The tradition of bagpipes played at fire department and police department funerals in the United States goes back over one hundred fifty years. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country, they brought many of their traditions with them. One of these was the Great Highland Bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and ceilis (dances).
It wasn't until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the bagpipes really took hold in the fire department. In the 1800's, Irish immigrants faced massive discrimination. Factories and shops had signs reading "NINA" - No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted - jobs that were dirty, dangerous, or both - firefighters and police officers. It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire. The Irish firefighters' funerals were typical of all Irish funerals - the pipes were played. It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of bagpipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade.
Those who have attended a funeral where bagpipes were played know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be. The most famous tune played at fire and police funerals is Amazing Grace. It wasn't too long before families and friends of non-Irish firefighters began asking for the bagpipes to be played for fallen heroes. The bagpipes add a special air and dignity to this solemn occasion.
Bagpipe bands represent both fire and police are often traditionally known as Emerald Societies after Ireland - the Emerald Isle. Many bands wear traditional Scottish dress while others wear the simpler Irish uniform. All members wear the kilt and tunic, whether it is a Scottish clan tartan or Irish single color kilt.
Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The bagpipes have become a distinguishing feature of a fallen brother or sister's funeral.