FALMOUTH – For Rob Simmons, there’s one proper way to honor a fallen firefighter or police officer that simply must be observed.
“They should always be honored with bagpipes at their funeral,” Simmons said. “If that person gave even one day of their life for public safety, they deserve to have a bagpiper.”
For Simmons — who just returned from Arizona, where he was one of 134 bagpipers who honored the 19 firefighters who died battling a wildfire — that means it’s time to get back to work on Guns ‘N Hoses Pipes and Drums of Maine, a bagpipe and drum corps that he hopes will one day make sure that every public safety officer in the state has bagpipes at a funeral.
The group currently has just five pipers and two drummers. Even though it makes sure to represent firefighters and police officers at funerals for those who fall in the line of duty, in Maine or elsewhere, Simmons said Guns ‘N Hoses is too small to get players to all the funerals of retired or former public safety officers. Eventually, he wants the group to grow enough to make that a reality.
Simmons, 55, said he feels as if bagpipes are in his blood, just as public service work surely is. The latter comes, he said, from being the son of a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York and the nephew of a state trooper.
“I was torn between being a firefighter and a police officer. They were trying to get me to go both ways, so I went into the Navy,” Simmons said.
But that only put off the inevitable decision.
After a dozen years in the Navy, including a stint at the former base in Brunswick, Simmons chose firefighting, a decision driven in part by a tragedy. About two weeks before he was due to report, Simmons said, his twin brother died in a fire at the family home in Kingston, N.Y., and he wanted to someday work to avert similar tragedies.
Simmons said that after leaving the Navy, he stayed in Maine, applied for a job with the South Portland Fire Department, got it and, 25 years later, remains happy with his choice. “I’ve always loved the profession,” he said.
The idea of a bagpipe and drum corps, he said, dates back to his early days with the South Portland department. A deputy chief died of natural causes, he said, and the department hastily formed a color guard for his funeral. The chief chose firefighters with military backgrounds, so Simmons was among those tapped.
But there was no bagpiper, and Simmons felt one was sorely missed, since he remembered pipes at funerals his family attended when he was a child.
The tradition, he said, dates back to the mid-19th century, when many Irish immigrants could only get jobs with police or fire departments. When there was a death, Simmons said, a bagpiper would play and now it’s expected at most funerals of public safety officers.
Simmons had always loved the sound of bagpipes, but said he never got around to learning how to play until he joined the South Portland firefighters. He started with a practice chanter — the pipe that produces the melody when air from the bag is forced through it — and eventually moved up to a full bagpipe set.
He’s joined several bagpipe groups over the years, Simmons said, but left for one reason or another.
“Bagpipe bands are notoriously political,” he said, and eventually he decided to start his own, although he also belongs to the International Association of Firefighters’ Pipe & Drum band, the same organization that played at the Arizona funerals.
Among those encouraging Simmons to form the band was Kate Savidge, who became a student of Simmons’ when she got a bagpipe set from her family on Mother’s Day seven years ago.
Bagpiping is extremely difficult, she said, noting that she played about a half-dozen instruments before taking up the pipes.
“Remember when, as a kid, you would try to march in place and rub your tummy and tap your head and chew gum at the same time?” she said. “It’s that type of instrument.
“It touches something in your soul,” Savidge said of the pipes. At funerals for public safety officers, she added, “it just feels like the right thing to do.”
Like Simmons, Savidge loved the sound of the pipes from childhood, but admits that playing in front of people has been somewhat nerve-wracking. However, she said, Simmons has helped her overcome that and she has joined Guns ‘N Hoses.
“When I played for my first line-of-duty funeral — I think it was in Boston — it really brought it all together,” said Savidge, who is married to a Falmouth police officer.
“The ability to honor public safety people is so important. It really drives home the importance of playing well and with feeling. You’ve got to mean it,” she said. “They’ve given their life for what they do and you’ve just got to do it to make it right.”
Simmons said he will focus on both recruiting more pipers and drummers and also raising money.
He said outfitting a piper with an instrument, along with the kilt and other parts of the uniform, can easily exceed $2,000. He said pipers and drummers also pay their own way to funerals out of state and would like to use donated funds to offset some of that cost.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: