CUMMINGTON — The Middle Eastern country of Lebanon is a long way from the Hilltowns, but thanks to the internet, a bagel company and an enthusiastic young firefighter, firefighters in the capital area of Beirut are wearing gear donated by four local towns. And those who organized the donation are looking to send over even more.
“We’re still trying to get more gear over there,” said recently retired Goshen firefighter Bob Labrie.
The young firefighter that started the effort is River de la Vida Williams, 20, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and member of the Cummington and Goshen fire departments.
“If you know River, you’re not surprised by his ambition,” Labrie said.
When Williams joined the Cummington Fire Department at age 17, Bernie Forgea, the fire chief at the time, announced his recruitment at a town meeting. At the time, Forgea mentioned that the department had gear that was more than 10 years old sitting in unopened boxes. Due to national regulations, such gear could not be used, so Forgea asked if there was a way to donate it to a foreign country.
Fast-forward to 2020, and a deadly explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city. In the aftermath of the explosion, Rudy Ayoub, a Lebanese guitarist that Williams follows, made a Youtube video asking for donations to a fire station in the Beirut area, as well as for donations of equipment.
“That reminded me of what Bernie said,” Williams said.
Williams sent a message on Instagram to Ayoub, who then got him into contact with Lebanese firefighter and EMT Charbel Salameh.
“I was like, (expletive) yeah, that would be amazing,’” Salameh said in recalling Williams’ offer to donate gear.
Williams then got to work.
“I reached out to some people around here to get some fire gear to go send to them,” Williams said.
Williams gathered fire gear from the Goshen, Cummington, Williamsburg and Chesterfield fire departments, which was available because national regulations prohibit fire departments from using gear that is more than 10 years old, regardless of its condition.
“That’s why many departments will have this surplus gear,” Labrie said.
The gear that was gathered included pants, jackets, helmets, fireproof boots and oxygen backpacks. It’s also not inexpensive.
“One set of turnout gear can run in the thousands of dollars,” Labrie said.
Salameh’s fire station is part of Lebanese Civil Defense, and almost all of the firefighters through Lebanese Civil Defense are volunteers like Salameh. The government, however, does not spend the money to properly equip the firefighters, he said. Before the donation, the station only had about 15 fire suits, seven of which were provided by the government, for a station with more than 40 members.
At the time of the explosion, Salameh’s station had no working vehicles, he said, and firefighters had to use two borrowed pickups to get to the scene.
A friend of Salameh’s who owns the Massachusetts-based company Bagel Boy, as well as a food-importing operation, helped Williams get the gear to Lebanon. One of Bagel Boy’s trucks picked up the gear in Westfield, and the company shipped it over to Salameh free of charge. The shipment arrived last fall. Salameh said that “it was a party” when the gear arrived and expressed gratitude for Williams’ actions.
“He knows how valuable your fire gear is,” Salameh said. “It’s the difference between life and death.”
Williams and Labrie are planning to send a second shipment of gear overseas, and they are looking for someone to either donate the shipping or to raise enough money to cover it.
Salameh’s station could still use more gear, but he also announced his intention to spread additional supplies around.
“If he manages to get more … I will find other stations that are in need,” he said.
Using donated money, his station has managed to purchase an ambulance. They’re also looking to acquire rope climbing gear for rescues.
Salameh keeps his fire gear in the trunk of his Jeep, and he has been a volunteer firefighter since 2012.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s in your blood.”
He also said that if something happens in his community, no one but his station is in a position to keep it safe.
“We do it for our community,” he said.
Salameh plans on visiting his sister in the United States next year, and he hopes to visit the fire departments in the Hilltowns that donated. “I want to thank them in person,” he said.
A GoFundMe site for the firefighters can be found at gofundme.com/f/lebanese-volunteer-firefighters-support-fund. Those who want to get involved with the second gear donation can all Labrie at 413-475-4650 or email Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bera Dunau can be reached at email@example.com.