“Ponchatoula has always been proud of its dedicated volunteer fire department and that pride has continued to grow along with the city and the department itself,” says Mayor Bob Zabbia.
Many residents remember the days of the loud siren atop the old two-story building at the corner of Northwest Railroad Avenue and West Hickory, the current location of Station 1.
At a blast from that siren, volunteers dropped everything, heading out to answer the call. One blast meant a fire on the east side, two, a fire on the west side, three, an emergency of some kind and one long, a distress signal.
Because most volunteers were downtown business owners or employees, upon hearing the alarm, they hurried outside to main street and jumped on the truck as it passed by!
Gene Fletcher, serving around 1960, says one of his biggest disappointments was having to leave the department after four years when he moved from town to Lee’s Landing because the siren couldn’t be heard that far out.
“We were more like a brotherhood,” he said. “We loved what we did helping people. Training and working together made us closer.”
And it’s still “like a brotherhood,” for most early mornings a number of the fellows from the past and present meet for coffee at the station along the tracks.
Asked about memories of the hardest structural fires to fight, the answers are the same: two fires at the creosote plant, the Ponchatoula Grammar School with its years of oil-mopped floors, and the Ideal Theater on West Pine with the struggle to keeping it confined from burning all of downtown. Barn fires were extremely difficult when filled with stacks of baled hay. One was extremely nerve-wracking when a farmer said he had a case of dynamite in the barn!
Equipment was limited and even now some laugh when they recall the answer to volunteer Dave Perkins’ question upon readying to enter one of the creosote fires.
Dave yelled, “Where’s my equipment?” and someone yelled back, “What equipment, Dave? All you got is a hose!”
Former Fire Chief Sonny Joiner said once inside the building, the creosote fire was so hot he and Dave had to keep hosing each other down to keep from bursting into flames themselves.
Young boys were so impressed seeing firsthand the love and dedication of firemen they knew, they grew up to work alongside them or follow in their footsteps. Many of those serving today are second and third generation members of the Ponchatoula Volunteer Fire Department.
Advancement came when firemen’s phone lines were adapted to ring and announce the fire and its location.
Now each fireman is notified by a small radio. Some wives tease it’s sometimes hard to wake their husbands on an ordinary day, but “Let that radio click on, and they go from sound sleep to fully dressed and out the door in seconds!”
And it’s a good thing they have the radios now because it certainly wouldn’t be fun living in Ponchatoula having loud sirens go off almost two-hundred times a month!
So we’ve gone from one truck, one station, one full-time paid fireman to 18 fire trucks, tankers and rescue units, four stations with two men in each at all times, 12 full-time paid firemen and 38 volunteers.
PVFD is now one of 10 departments in Fire District #2, both city and rural, from Livingston Parish to Tangipahoa River. Eighth Ward takes over at the river eastward. Manchac covers northbound I-55 and Ponchatoula, southbound.
Monday nights are still spent in several hours of drills and in-depth training. Sonny Bennett sometimes brings wrecked vehicles from his Bennett’s Towing and Recovery for practice with the Jaws of Life for extrication. Firemen are certified in Firefighter 1, First Aid and Safety, and CPR. Some are Emergency Medical Responders as well.
Chief Stormy Joiner, at Central Station on North First St. says, “We respond to all EMS calls, automobile accidents, fires, and emergencies. In 2017 we responded to 1,924 calls.”
At Ponchatoula City Council meetings, Jeremy Peltier reports the monthly calls first by total, then by types.
It’s not easy to become a Ponchatoula volunteer fireman as one has to be highly recommended then voted on by all the firemen. Many things have changed through the years, but this same method of selection assures that brotherhood and sincere caring will never change.
To raise funds, the firemen used to go from door-to-door where they were always welcomed by people so appreciative, they were generous, even those who had little to give.
October 7-13, 2018, is Fire Prevention Week so let’s make this a special time of appreciation and support for those who risk their lives, caring for us year ‘round – those referred to by many as the “Best volunteer fire department in the state!”