Howard County Times
Howard County

9/11 inspiration brings firefighters together in bagpipe band

Fifty trips to New York to honor some of the 343 firefighters who died in the aftermath of 9/11 helped ignite an idea in the mind of Howard County Assistant Fire Chief J. Mark Richards, resulting in a mission he is carrying out today.

Standing at attention several dozen different times while listening to bagpipers play as pallbearers carried the caskets of those New York firefighters, he knew what he wanted to do: Help form a pipe band back in Maryland.

Richards made those trips a decade ago with other county firefighters during off-duty hours to Staten Island and Manhattan to attend funeral and memorial services held in the vicinity of the World Trade Center's twin towers.

Today, Richards is in his fourth year as pipe major of the Fire Brigade Pipes and Drums of Greater Baltimore, which was founded in 2004 with 12 people. He now heads a roster of 50 active and retired firefighters — who mainly hail from Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City — in playing bagpipes and drums.

A contingent of the kilt-wearing Fire Brigade performed at Firehouse Expo 2011, held at the Baltimore Convention Center last weekend and attended by thousands of firefighters from across the country, and the state's first pipe band is fielding multiple requests for 10th anniversary ceremonies marking 9/11.

"We all have such tremendous admiration for what our fellow firefighters accomplished in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond," said Richards, who lives in Carroll County. "Performing with the pipe band brings out that pride and respect."

The poignant sound of the bagpipes evokes emotions that accompany every firefighter's sense of patriotism, duty and sacrifice, he said.

"There's no gray area when it comes to their distinct sound, though," Richards said. "You either like the loud, shrill music they make or you don't."

Richards was named to his fire department position in January and has 37 years of service to Howard County. He was a volunteer firefighter in Carroll County before that.

"Being a firefighter is the only thing I ever remember wanting to do, so I guess you could say I'm living the dream," he said of his recent promotion. He added that he'd "always loved working the calls" and he still responds to large fires, weather emergencies and incidents with multiple casualties.

Make that twin dreams, actually, since he's appreciated bagpipe music for a very long time.

Residents of the 21043 ZIP code have probably heard the musicians practicing at Ellicott City Fire Station 2 for two hours every other Tuesday night since 2006, perhaps without knowing where the music was originating (the station is at Montgomery Road and Old Columbia Pike). On the alternate Tuesdays, they practice in Pikesville, another centrally located fire station.

"Amazing Grace" and "America" are all-time favorites for most pipe bands that play at departmental ceremonies and the like, and "Highland Cathedral" and "Scotland the Brave" are two of the band's most popular traditional tunes.

But when the musicians perform at weddings and other events, the band's lively version of rock band Coldplay's "Clocks" takes its place among the popular selections.

"A lot of pipe bands don't do harmonies," said Baltimore County firefighter and drummer Allen Roody after the band's rendition of that song. "We pride ourselves on that."

Helping the band scale new musical heights is the group's teacher, Dan Lyden, a Baltimore resident and pipe major with the City of Washington Pipe Band.

"We're especially happy that Dan is willing to work with us," said Richards, noting that Lyden is one of a select few Grade A pipers and has won world competitions.

Sean Davis pitched in at a recent Tuesday practice to help the band's current crop of 10 students with the rudiments of piping on chanters, practice instruments that resemble the plastic recorders kids learn to play in elementary school music class. Jim Dunne, a retired Baltimore County firefighter and the band's original pipe major, is the group's regular instructor.

Davis, a Baltimore City firefighter, began playing the bagpipes with the Fire Brigade five years ago with no previous experience on any musical instrument. He admits to having a leg up on some novice musicians, though; he's sung with his family's Irish folk band, The Spalpeens, at the Irish Festival in Baltimore many times.

"Anyone can join as long as they're healthy, because there aren't any rests in bagpipe music," Richards said, emphasizing the dedication required because "it's not the easiest instrument in the world to learn."

The Fire Brigade epitomizes the firefighters' devotion to public safety and has been a tremendous outlet for expressing that, members say.

"My first impulse was to respond to the World Trade Center on 9/11, but I happened to be off that day and didn't get deployed," Richards recalled. "But out of every tragedy some good comes, and the good in that situation was the way the nation's fire departments came together and stayed together."