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History of the Bagpipes in the Fire Service

Bagpipes Tradition

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 song 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 often have more than 60 uniformed playing members.  They are also 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 hero's funeral. 

The Maltese Cross

The Maltese cross is known around the world as a symbol of the fire service.  It is often seen painted on fire trucks, on the clothing of firefighters, depicted on firefighter's badges, and is quite often the chosen design of firefighter tattoos. So where did the Maltese cross come from, and how did it get to be known as a symbol of the fire service?  The Badge of a Fire Fighter is the Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross is a symbol of protection and a badge of honor.  Its story is hundreds of years old.

When a courageous band of crusaders known as Knights of St. John fought the Saracens for possession of the holy land, they encountered a new weapon unknown to European warriors.  It was a simple, but horrible device of war.  It wrought excruciating pain and agonizing death upon the brave fighters for the cross.  The Saracens weapon was fire.  As the crusaders advanced on the walls of the city, they were struck by glass bombs containing naphtha.  When they became saturated with the highly flammable liquid, the Saracens hurled a flaming torch into their midst.  Hundreds of the knights were burned alive; others risked their lives to save their brothers-in-arms from dying painful, fiery deaths. 

Thus, these men became our first Fire Fighters and the first of a long list of courageous Fire Fighters. Their heroic efforts were recognized by fellow crusaders who awarded each hero a badge of honor, a cross similar to the one fire fighters wear today.  Since the Knights of St. John lived for close to four centuries on a little island in the Mediterranean Sea named Malta, the cross came to be known as the Maltese Cross.  The Maltese Cross is your symbol of protection.  It means that the Fire Fighter who wears this cross is willing to lay down his life for you just as the crusaders sacrificed their lives for their fellow man so many years ago.  The Maltese Cross is a Fire Fighter's badge of honor, signifying that he works in courage...a ladder rung away from death.


The Fireman's "Ringing of the Bell" Tradition

The ceremonial ringing of the bell in memory of those who died in the line of duty is an age old tradition of the Fire Services that dates back over 150 years.  The tradition reflects respect and honor to those who gave their lives to their duty.  A distinctive bell ringing marks the end of an emergency and a return to quarters.  In memory of all who died during the attacks on September 11, 2001 the bell is rung five times in series of fives (5 x 5 x 5 x 5 x 5).  Multiplied out this equals 3,125, a number very close to the number of people who died as result of the attacks.


The Dalmatian

The Dalmation was first used in the fire service when most fire companies were volunteer or privately operated.  There was some competition for services.  Some of the firefighters were actually recruited not only for their strength in fighting fire but for their fighting abilities to protect the company and its equipment.  Insurance companies paid the fire company that put out the fire, so the one that made it to the scene, hooked up to a hydrant and completed the task, got paid.  The dogs worked well at this task of protecting not only the horses, but the equipment in the stations and on the fire ground as well. 

Early firefighters took tremendous pride in their companies. They would turn out and parade through the city at almost any occasion. Great care was taken in making your rig fancier than the next one. Polished brass brilliant paint jobs and gleaming leather were always maintained. It was only natural that when word of this remarkable spotted dog was heard, companies had to have one. Dalmatians began appearing with fire companies and they had the expected impact. People pointed and gawked. They were that extra piece of fancywork that every Jake wanted on his rig. The Dalmatian did the job proudly but they had some drawbacks. They were hard to get and many of them were deaf. The American fire service was well served by this noble breed. 

Free roaming "wild"dogs would dash out at passing teams of horses.  They would nip at the legs of the horses and generally harass the equines.  The Dalmatian, or coach dog,  would fend off these marauding dogs whenever the steam engine traveled over the road.  It was a very common sight to see the Dalmatian running out in front of the horses. 

Today the Dalmatian serves as a fire house mascot, but back in the days of horse drawn fire carts, they provided a valuable service.  Dalmatians and horses are very compatible.  They have an amazing calming effect on the horses.   The dogs were easily trained to run in front of the engines to help clear a path and guide the horses and the firefighters to the fires quickly.  Once on the scene of a call, they took over as guard dog, making sure nothing was stolen from the apparatus.  They are still chosen by many fire fighters as pets in honor of their heroism in the past.



Why Red Fire Engines

The most widely-accepted reason that fire engines are painted red dates back to the 1800s -- a time when there was a lot of competition between the fire brigades of neighboring cities and towns. The firefighters of each brigade took great pride in their pumper.  Each brigade wanted their rig to stand out by being the cleanest, having the most brass, or being a regal color. Because red was the most expensive color, that's what color most crews chose to paint the pumper. 

Other sources cite the tradition of painting fire engines red going back to the early 1920's.  Henry Ford wanted to make cars as inexpensively as possible and only offered cars in one color: black. With all of these black vehicles on the road, the fire service began painting their vehicles red in an effort to stand out. 

Today, just as you have many more choices of colors available to you for your vehicle, so do the fire engine manufacturers.  It is not uncommon to see white, yellow, blue, orange, green, or even black fire engines, in addition to red. And while some studies hint that colors such as lime-green may be more visible to the public than traditional red, the vast majority of fire departments continue to use red fire engines -- a color instantly recognized by everyone as that of a fire engine. 

Most recent fire engines purchased have shifted to the Chicago-famed, black over red paint scheme. The first closed-cab chief's cars in Chicago had black tops which were of a tar composition and could not be painted. Someone among the brass liked the appearance, so as new closed-cab apparatus came onto the roster, the cabs of the fire engines were painted black. 

You may also notice the green light on fire engines in northern states. This is also a traditional Chicago-style fire engine feature.  Commissioner Albert Goodrich of the Chicago Fire Department (1927 - 1931) had a nautical background.  He applied the marine scheme (red light on port, green light on starboard) to fire apparatus, and the idea became a tradition of the Chicago Fire Department.  It is also used to mark the bay doors at most Chicago fire stations.

Article by Damion Roberts




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