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Bloomington Firefighters Continue Pipes And Drums Tradition

On the morning of April 10th, there's a training session at the Bloomington Fire Department Headquarters.

But this one is a little different from what you'd expect.


Sitting at tables on the third floor are several of the fire service workers that make up the department's new Pipe and Drum Corps.

They're being instructed by Ully Morrison a piper from the Southern Indiana Pipes and Drums. Each one holds a long black, plastic instrument.

This is their practice "chanter," the melody pipe on bagpipes.

They'll learn the fundamentals of playing the pipes on these chanters, from the basic tunes to the intricate ornaments, before moving to a full set of bagpipes including the bag and drones.

Battalion Chief Rob Stumpf is an 11 year veteran of the Bloomington Fire Department, the last seven of which he has served as the training officer for the department.  He's also been playing the great highland bagpipes for the last 3 years.

Stumpf is the driving force behind the Pipes and Drums.

In May 2008, he found his inspiration at a symposium in Lewisville, Texas which focused on the tradition of the pipe and drum corps.

When he returned, Stumpf sent out several emails to others in the Bloomington Fire Department to see who might be interested.

The email read something to the effect of "I'm going to continue to send this emails until somebody responded one way or another."

Many of the others were hesitant at first; citing a lack of musical experience.

Stumpf's response, "You're barking up the wrong tree."  He had never played an instrument and only learned to read music after a year of playing.

The Pipes and Drums are now 10 members strong, focusing on learning the pipes and drums.

It didn't take long before Stumpf says he felt he had reached the limits of what he could teach the pipers.

They've now enlisted help from members of the Emerald Society and the Southern Indiana Pipes and Drums.

Looking for assistance on the financial side of the endeavor, they turned to the City of Bloomington.

When they put the request into the Bloomington Mayor's Office, Stumpf thought "it was, at the very best, a long shot. It was one of those, ‘it can't hurt to ask' kind of things.'"

When the grant was approved, the firefighters were ecstatic, but an immediate sense of responsibility.

Stumpf reminds the pipers when times get tough, "There are people who have invested some faith in us."

The arts grant provided enough funding to purchase to purchase five sets of handmade bagpipes from Scotland, drums, kilts and other uniform accessories.

Altogether, the Mayor's Office helped to purchase about 80 percent of what they needed to start the Pipes and Drums. "You can easily invest a couple thousand dollars an individual in just uniform, and expect to spend somewhere between five and fifteen hundred dollars for instrumentation, so it's a bit of an expensive enterprise," says Stumpf.

For the community and the statewide family of firefighters, the money is well spent.

The pipers will honor their fallen if they are needed, but not everything about the corps is morose.

Good times are indeed part of their mission. In addition to their role in mourning the loss of their comrades in the line of duty, the pipers are tasked to celebrate the lives of those in the service that remain.

And the pipers literally wear their commitment to those who serve and have served.

Their kilts are decorated with the family tartan of the first Bloomington firefighter to die in the line of duty, former Fire Chief Clarence Strain.

Strain was struck by a train at 6th and Morton Streets in 1925 while responding to alarm. So when looking for a tartan, the pipers didn't have to go far.

While doing research on Chief Strain, they found an even more profound message in his family crest.

The Strain [Strachan in Irish] crest contains the Latin phrase, "Non timeo sed caveo," or "Never fearful, but always cautious."

When Stumpf saw these words he thought, "My God, this guy was destined to be a firefighter."

He relates a story that, for him, gets directly to the heart of why he pipes, and why he was so passionate to see the Bloomington Firefighters Pipes and Drums started.

While at the conference in Lewisville, Texas, all 30 pipers played a tour of several local restaurants.

At their final stop for the night, they finished their sets of tunes and the pipe major asked the patrons to take off their hats and raise their glasses to all of the fallen firefighters as they played "Amazing Grace."

As 30 pipers joined the lone piper in the tune, Stumpf saw people around him opening weeping.

"I didn't stop and ask them, ‘Why does this tune have the impact that it has upon you?' but I knew that I was on to something."

"When you play a musical instrument, and it has the kind of effect on people, there's something to it. It's pretty profound."

The Bloomington Fire Department Pipes and Drums will make their next public appearance on May 2nd as part of the 2009 "Bloomington Pumper Pull" and the first ever "Mayday Battle of the Badges."

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