Flame and Misfortune

Marc Stone and the Orange County Fire Authority Pipes and Drums started by turning tragedy into tradition.

What's the history of the band?

Back East—New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia—they've got a long tradition of pipe bands because of how long they've been around. On the West Coast, we just didn't have that tradition. In 1997, we lost a couple of guys on duty, and we wanted to honor them. It just so happened that two of us had been learning the bagpipes, and we stepped up and played the bagpipes for those funerals. We wanted to send them off right. We decided after those funerals we'd get together and form a department band. We needed to build some tradition out here on the West Coast. From that, it's grown to 24 members. We've got a lot of support from the department. We ended up being the first fire-department-related bagpipe band in California. Since 9/11, a lot more have popped up. The difference between ours and some of the others throughout the state is that in order to be in our band, you have to be employed with the Fire Authority.

Are most fire agencies in Orange County part of the Orange County Fire Authority?

We do about half the county. The bigger cities have their own fire departments. We handle the rest of the county, about 1.5 million people. We cover Buena Park, Westminster, Stanton, Placentia, Yorba Linda, Tustin and pretty much everything from Irvine south to San Clemente.

What was your start playing the bagpipes?

It was something I always wanted to do. I remember as a kid seeing some bagpipes in a parade, and I just thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen or heard in my life. I found out that the San Clemente Scots were meeting in San Juan Capistrano, and they allowed me to come down and learn bagpipes with them. I was learning with them at the time we were having our deaths. About all we knew at the time was "Amazing Grace," but we were able to at least bark that out. It takes about a year and a half to two years to sound halfway decent. To be really good, it takes about nine. It's a huge commitment.

Why are pipe bands commonly tied to fire and police departments?

Back when the Scottish and the Irish immigrated, they were discriminated against because there were so many of then coming over. Nobody wanted to hire them for the good jobs, and all the crappy jobs were police and fire because they didn't pay anything. And with the fires they had in those days, it wouldn't be uncommon to lose three or four guys in a fire. As they came over, they brought their history and their traditions with them, and one of them was the bagpipes. People started noticing when they'd have these police department and fire department funerals that the guys [would] send off whoever with the bagpipes. It just grew. . . . The reason it's so prevalent in East Coast police and fire is that's where the Irish and Scottish were working back in those days.

What kind of occasions do you play?

The main reason we formed—and our motto—is honoring our fallen. When someone goes down in the line of duty, we're there. We get a lot of calls from neighboring departments. We also do academy graduations and retirement dinners. We just opened the Long Beach Grand Prix. We've been on the [Tonight Show With] Jay Leno. We've done the Jerry Lewis Telethon. We've done the Rose Bowl parade. It started from a solemn thing, but [then it] became "Let's have some fun with this, too."



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