East Coast firefighters help Alabama units hit by tornadoes

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — There is a special bond among firefighters — likely forged in flames — that distance cannot extinguish.

So when a series of tornadoes damaged firehouses and equipment in Alabama last month, a Wantage, New Jersey, firefighter sent out a call for help.

The response was so great that on Wednesday morning a tractor-trailer and a few pickup trucks full of donated fire equipment, along with a donated fire engine, will start the 15-hour ride to Alabama.

Volunteer fire departments from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania donated equipment in response to the social media post by the Beemerville Fire Department's Capt. Hunter Space.

Some of the donations will go to reequip the County Line Fire Department in Russell County, Alabama, which was destroyed by a tornado. The rest will go to more than a half-dozen rural departments in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.

One of the departments getting the equipment is in Coker, just northwest of Tuscaloosa, where Robert Bowers is chief.

Bowers wears two firefighting caps: He is chief of his small-town department and is a career firefighter in Vance, which has a hybrid department made up of a small number of paid firefighters, augmented by volunteers.

The Vance chief is Harold McAdory, who made a connection with Space over Facebook last year when a similar effort was undertaken. Space at that time responded to McAdory's social post about his department's dire need for additional fire equipment.

In late January, Space made the trip to Alabama in his pickup truck piled high with gear that no longer met New Jersey state standards. New Jersey requires equipment, such as turnout gear, boots, masks and air tanks, to be discarded after a certain amount of calendar time, not in-use time. Alabama does not have a similar equipment requirement.

Bowers and Space have kept in touch since they bonded while deer hunting in Alabama. "We just hit it off right away," Space said.

Bowers, 33, has been a paid firefighter for about a year, a volunteer for longer. Space is a fourth-generation firefighter in Beemerville, a section of Wantage.

With their bonding came the realization by Space that there were other New Jersey departments with lots of gear hanging in closets, stacked high on shelves or piled in back corners.

So when a tornado outbreak hit Alabama on St. Patrick's Day, Space put out the call for equipment to help his counterparts from the South.

"I put out the word, and the response was tremendous," Space said.

Space and firefighters from Wantage's other volunteer fire department, Colesville, cleaned out their firehouse closets of items that otherwise would have been taken to a landfill.

Within weeks he filled a tractor-trailer with the donations from departments throughout New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

There were boxes of masks, still usable but past the "expiration date" set by New Jersey; complete radio sets; light bars to illuminate accident scenes; hose, some of it brand-new, donated by a manufacturer; hand tools and much more.

"I heard we're getting vent saws," Bowers said, referring to a basic firefighting tool used to cut holes in the roof of a burning building to control the spread of flames. He said none of the volunteer departments in his area have one.

While Space was the inspiration in New Jersey, there were many others who pitched in. Mark DeVoe of the Washington Borough department in southern Warren County, along with 30 fellow volunteers, collected donations from neighboring departments.

Everyone delivered their "gifts" to the Beemerville department last Saturday.

DeVoe had an extra gift: $2,500 to fuel up the tractor-trailer. About 80% of the money came from a group of funeral directors, including Smith-McCracken of Newton, Wood of Branchville, Goble of Sparta, Cochran of Hackettstown and Knoll-DeVoe of Washington Borough. The rest of the fuel money came from a private donor.

Bowers said the effort by his "northern brothers" is something that is very welcomed.

Space said jokingly that his job "will be done when that truck gets to Coker. Then it's his (Bowers') baby."

The southern chief said the seven departments he selected to receive equipment have provided lists of "their needs and their wants. Then we'll see what's on the truck and give it out."

The destination of the biggest gift, however, has already been decided. A department in Tuscaloosa County is operating with just one firetruck, bought in the 1980s. It will get the donated 1991 model from the Nancy Run Fire Company in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania.

DeVoe said Nancy Run recently purchased a new truck, with a full complement of equipment, and decided to donate the older model, with equipment and a nearly complete set of hose.

Bowers said members of the department getting the new engine have kept theirs going "by taking money from their own pockets to buy fuel, and the parts needed to keep the old truck running."

Bowers said he's getting some personal satisfaction from the whole project. "This is a very exciting thing for these departments," he said. "And I've got a new friend, and I'm getting a few (fire department) patches for my collection."

The effort is being done in the name of former Beemerville Fire Chief Chris VanderGroef, who died last week.