Gary Cosby Jr.
The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — An 18-wheeler pulled up in front of Coker Volunteer Fire Department on Thursday laden with a mountain of firefighting gear donated by departments in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
The gear represents a windfall of equipment that many of the volunteer departments in West Alabama never would have been able to afford to purchase.
The National Fire Protection Association rules stipulate fire equipment cannot have more than a 10-year shelf life. Coker Fire Chief Robert Bowers said the strict adherence to the rule by northeastern fire departments has benefitted Tuscaloosa County departments.
"Up north, they follow the NFPA 10-year shelf life rule to the 'T.' They have to give up their equipment after 10 years, and it has to be replaced. It's not a rule followed in every state. We try to follow it as best we can, but volunteer departments here struggle so much," Bowers said.
Hunter Space, a captain in the Wantage Township Fire Department in New Jersey, was the organizer on his end of the pipeline, with the goal of helping Alabama fire departments affected by tornadoes on St. Patrick's Day. The donation equipment from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania included hoses, protective clothing for firefighters, medical equipment, rescue equipment, generators, air bottles and more.
Bowers and volunteer James Booth crawled over the back of the trailer, examining what would have cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars for Alabama fire departments to purchase.
"Friends of mine (who are fire chiefs), their guys have taken money out of their own pockets to put fuel in the trucks, buy equipment for the trucks. It's just amazing the amount of help those departments up north get compared to what we get," Bowers said. "We are supposed to be here for one another, but it is hard for departments to purchase something when they don't have the funding."
That is the gap the donated equipment will fill. Bowers said he had departments in Tuscaloosa County, Pickens County, Fayette County, Clay County, Blount County and Etowah County that he will be distributing this gear to, and there is still more coming. The next load of equipment will be passed to departments all across Alabama.
The donation began with an unexpected friendship. Bowers was working for the Vance Fire Department when Space brought a load of used turnout gear — firefighter's protective clothing — to help the Vance department. All Space wanted in return was to go deer hunting. Bowers invited him to stay with him and his wife, and they struck up a friendship.
When Bowers came to Coker, he saw an immediate need for turnout gear. Much of the existing equipment was too old to be effective, and some men didn't have access to turnout clothing at all.
"I reached out to Hunter and told him I was out here in Coker now and asked if he thought they could come up with a few sets for us," Bowers said. "That afternoon he called me back and said it might be a U-Haul truck full. I had spoken with the mayor here to see if we could get plane tickets to fly up to drive the truck back. Well, the following day, Hunter called me back and said a U-Haul isn't going to handle this. We are going to need a tractor-trailer."
The equipment arriving in Coker on Thursday was eye-popping. Roll after roll of 5-inch fire hose greeted the firefighters as they opened the trailer doors. Turnout gear and firefighting helmets lay across the top of the hose. Then there were all manner of fire equipment stacked chest high the length of the trailer.
"It started out as one department helping another department, then a friendship was made. We've talked on the phone about how the North and the South give each other a hard time, but I'm going to tell you, those guys bailed us out. They really have taken care of us. They don't realize the blessing they have brought to these departments," Bowers said.
(c)2021 The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.