Brownsville firefighters honor fallen first responders through music
The musicians of Brownsville Firefighters Pipes and Drums have been part of numerous events celebrating first responders in their five years together. But what keeps them committed to their volunteer work is the chance to comfort the loved ones of their fallen brethren during times of grief.
The four-piece band of musically inclined firefighters plays traditional Irish and Scottish marches at around 20 events each year, Desiderio Tristan, founder and Brownsville Fire Department pump engineer, said. He plays the bagpipes, Lt. Joey Garcia plays the snare drum, Capt. Gabriel Garza plays the bass drum and firefighter-paramedic Nason Rumfield plays the tenor drum.
“The powerful impact of the instruments at the ceremony, the relief it brings to the family during their time of grief is what led us to start our group,” Tristan said.
The band’s mission is to honor first responders killed in the line of duty, he said. It’s a tradition that goes back to the Irish who immigrated to the U.S. during the 1840s. They took dangerous jobs like police officer and firefighter, and they performed their customary pipes and drums at funerals.
“We want to comfort families of fallen firefighters,” Garcia said. “For me, that’s the reason why we do it, to help them grieve.”
Garza likened the pipes and drums tradition to the Valley customs of having mariachis at a funeral, a symbol of how much that person was respected.
“(It shows) their loved one was important because they served in the fire department,” he said. “If someone calls us to help out, we’re going to go.”
Tristan led the creation of the Brownsville Firefighters Pipes and Drums in 2013, after he and other members of the Brownsville firefighters color guard traveled to West, Texas, for the burials of 12 firefighters killed in the West Fertilizer Company explosion. They attended the Friday funeral of Hidalgo County EMS medic Felipe Huerta, Jr., 32, who died Dec. 16 in Edinburg after his ambulance was struck by an alleged drunk driver.
The three drummers in the band all volunteered for the pipes and drums band when they learned what Tristan was doing.
“I really appreciate my band members. They’re smart, hard-working guys,” he said. “It’s an extra duty, above and beyond.”
Tristan, a Harlingen native, had studied music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he played the euphonium, baritone and piano. To learn the bagpipes, he drove to practice with the closest instructor in Corpus Christi and took lessons over Skype.
The group is willing to recruit civilians willing to take on the challenge of learning the bagpipes. About 10 firefighters have tried in the past, Tristan said. The musicians train together once a month and take on at least 20 events per year.
“We need more bagpipes to expand our group .If we can get more personnel on the bagpipes, we can recruit more drummers,” he said. “We stay busier than we ever expected. Sometimes we have to turn down events. If we had more members, maybe we could split the group up and go to (several in one day).”
The events Brownsville Firefighters Pipes and Drums play are celebratory and solemn. There are parades, flag ceremonies, veterans ceremonies and 9/11 remembrances.
“All the fun things are exactly that, but it’s been the funerals where people have said, ‘You honored us by being here,’ that are the most rewarding,” Rumfield said.
The group was first invited to play as part of the Texas Fire Pipes and Drums at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show in 2014 for a first responders appreciation game. Though not televised, Tristan said the 100,000 spectators is probably the largest audience the Brownsville group will have.
“The best gratitude we receive is from the other first responders on the field, thanks for representing them,” he said. “That’s who we do it for.”
Tristan said the Brownsville Professional Firefighters Association Local 970 provided the initial funding for the bands’ instruments and uniforms, and the Brownsville Fire Department and city administration are also supporters.
“We really couldn’t do it without them,” Tristan said, “and when I see the struggles of other bands that do have (support), it makes me appreciate them more.”
Learn more about Brownsville Firefighters Pipes and Drums at facebook.com/bffpipesanddrums.