By REBECCA JACOBSON
Greg Rose was a kid on Vancouver Island the first time he heard the bagpipes.
“I was with my grandpa at the Parliament Buildings, and they had a piper standing out there,” Rose recalls. “I just wouldn’t leave. I was probably seven or eight. And ever since then, I’ve been fascinated and wanted to learn how to play.”
Soon after joining Portland Fire & Rescue in 2006, Rose began learning from a fellow firefighter. For years he built his skills. Bagpipes are notoriously difficult, requiring careful tuning, precise coordination of movements, and physical stamina. Rose often played with the Portland Police Highland Guard for memorials and celebrations. Within the fire department, though, he was a solo act.
That changed in early 2019, when Rose put forth his vision for a fire band. Today, Portland Fire Fighters Pipes and Drums counts 20 members—11 pipers and nine drummers—from stations across the city. Representing all ranks, they meet every Wednesday evening for three and a half hours.
“It’s amazing how fast it goes,” Rose says of practices. “It just flies by. A lot of the time it doesn’t feel like enough time.”
Since their first public performance at the VA Medical Center on Memorial Day 2021, they’ve played dozens of engagements, including funerals, memorial services, civic events, and parades. Sometimes that means multiple events a day: Last month, they played several tunes at a September 11 memorial event in downtown Portland—a fireboat on the Willamette provided a water cannon display as accompaniment—before traveling to Oregon City for another remembrance ceremony.
Bagpipes, in one form or another, date back to antiquity. In Celtic cultures, the instrument has for centuries been part of funerals, weddings, and celebrations. Portland’s fire band is also carrying on a tradition, one that dates back more than 150 years in this country. In the mid-19th century, anti-immigrant discrimination meant that some of the only work newly arrived Irish and Scottish men could find was in fire and police departments. The work was dangerous, and many died on the job. Naturally, pipes were played at their funerals. The practice stuck, and today fire and police departments across the United States (and Canada) have their own pipe and drum bands.
For Rose, the band is much more than an extracurricular activity. Though the band plays celebratory events—this year’s Grand Floral Parade was a highlight—their chief aim is to honor the fallen. To play well, Rose says, band members must understand the gravity of that mission.
“I would never call piping a hobby,” says Rose, who was named Portland Firefighter of the Year in 2020. “It’s a service.”
Providing such a service, Rose emphasizes, has only been possible with collective effort. Though Rose played a key role in getting the band off the ground—and as pipe major, he also serves as its leading musician—he’s insistent that he couldn’t have done it alone. “It’s not the Greg Rose show,” he says. “I tried doing it on my own. Two or three times. It didn’t work.”
What made the difference in 2019, Rose says, was greater structure. This meant, among other things, recruiting administrative support, drafting a constitution and bylaws, and securing buy-in from the union, International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 43. Between instruments, uniforms, and instructors, the band is an expensive undertaking, and Rose credits union secretary-treasurer Travis Chipman with easing the way. Not only has the union facilitated loans and easy payroll deductions for those in the band, it’s also set up a union-wide voluntary payroll deduction to raise additional funds. According to band president Sean Fogarty, more than half the firefighters in the city contribute. “Without the support of all our brothers and sisters in the department, we’d be screwed,” Fogarty says. “There’s no way we could do it.”
Also crucial to the band’s success has been its lead instructor, Gordon Convoy. Raised in Scotland, Convoy began playing the pipes at age 12 and even worked for several years in a bagpipe factory in the village of Luss on Loch Lomond. A former police officer, he moved to Portland in 2012 and joined the Portland Police Highland Guard, where he met Rose. As Rose began to think more seriously about launching a fire band, he knew he wanted Convoy at his side.
In Rose, Convoy saw a “hunger to learn and to improve.” He also recognized his humility, his patience, his willingness to ask for support, and his ability to lead by example. Though Convoy says he didn’t need much convincing to come on board, he was clear from the get-go about the demands of this venture. “To honor people who have sacrificed, and [to be there] for the families of those people, that is a huge responsibility,” he says. “You have to commit to doing that 100 percent. That was one of my criteria. If they weren’t thinking that way, it wasn’t enough for me.”
Rose was on the same page, and so were the members—many of whom had never picked up an instrument or even read music—who signed on in winter 2019. They started out on practice chanters, which resemble recorders and allow beginners to focus on finger positioning. For a year, they met weekly. After the pandemic hit, the band shut down for a while before attempting Zoom practices (“a nightmare,” Rose says). Eventually, they were able to gather regularly, including through the following winter, for outdoor practices at a member’s home in Newberg.
As the pandemic surged, Rose often played solo at hospitals around the city, setting up outside the entry and timing his sets to shift change for the nurses. By spring 2021, the rest of the band was ready to join him. After a private performance at a park for a fellow firefighter in the late stages of occupational cancer, the band made its first public appearance in the courtyard of the VA Medical Center on Memorial Day.
For Rose, this is only the beginning. “The biggest thing for me is creating something that will go far beyond us,” he says. “It’s not about any individual. It’s about this entity and creating something that we can pass off. We’re just these spokes in a wheel, and my hope is that people are doing this 100 years from now.”