Administration and Leadership, Columns

Bagpipes: Explaining an EMS Tradition

Issue 9 and Volume 39.

In many ways, the last day is always the hardest. Difficult in not only the lengthy undulating miles to be covered under frequently hot and windy conditions, but also in knowing what awaits us at the end of that last mile.

As a parade of sirens and lights from police escorts, ambulances, rescue and fire trucks began to announce our arrival into Colorado Springs on June 27, I took one hand off my handlebars and grasped the dog tags of the fallen EMS comrade I’d been cycling for over the last three days. I knew at the conclusion of this journey I would unleash them from around my neck to his family, coworker or friend. They, along with 23 other grieving groups, gathered from across the country to bear witness to their loved ones being inducted onto the tree of life during the National EMS Memorial Service held the following day.

This particular Colorado leg is only one of several cycling events across the United States where the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride (NEMSMBR) foundation pays homage to EMS providers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, were seriously injured or became ill while serving others.

I’ve always considered it an honor and privilege to be a Muddy Angel (NEMSMBR cyclist), but this was hard … very hard. The engraved name and brief history I knew only from reading was now real—the faces of a grief-stricken family choking back tears as they tried to express their appreciation while grasping the hand that held his name.

I was holding it together pretty well until I heard that unmistakable sound from a distance—an honor guard marched into the park for the memorial tribute, kept in rhythmic precision by a tenor drummer as a small parade of kilted snare drummers and pipers approached from behind. The pipes were silent, but I knew once they came to a halt, it was just a matter of seconds before my eyes would tear up from those air-filled bags. Just as the reservoir of air would be transformed to music, so would emotions be transformed through cultural and personal historical association.

Bagpipes have apparently been around well before the 1400s, but people have asked me why bagpipes are specifically played in America during military, police and firefighter funeral services. Well, I’m no expert, but having researched via the Internet, YouTube and movie (“Braveheart”) reruns, I should sound like I know what I’m talking about. Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

I’ve always associated bagpipes as part of the Celtic lineage. Apparently the British weren’t too keen on the idea of highlanders having access to said musical instruments as a motivational device to inspire them to fight for their freedom. So, after Scotland was defeated by the British in 1745, bagpipes became outlawed to prevent future rebellion, which indirectly empowered Mel Gibson to make a gazillion dollars some 250 years later.

When the Irish immigrated to the east coast of America, motivated by the great potato famine of the 1800s, they were highly discriminated against. Few could find work that didn’t require low pay at a great risk to their personal safety. The dirty and dangerous jobs of that time included firefighting and police work.

It wasn’t uncommon for Irish firefighters and police officers to die while performing their duties and, in keeping with Celtic traditions, the pipes were played during their funerals.

EMS funerals now include the pipes and drums as ceremonial tradition, and rightfully so. EMS is considered a relatively new profession when compared to firefighting and law enforcement, but we’re a part of that public safety umbrella whose normally unnoticed bravery, honor and sense of pride is no less worthy in comparison.

To those who march and play for our fallen, I personally thank you for this solemn yet beautiful tradition of providing comfort and a means to unfurl our emotions as we mourn during our darkest hours.

Until next time, be safe.

Steve invites you to join him as the Muddy Angels ride again this coming fall for the West Coast National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. See for further information.