St. Amant — As a child, Johnny Berthelot grew up down the street from the only fire station on the east bank of Ascension Parish.
He would run to the station each time he heard the fire alarm blare.
As a senior in high school, the Gonzales Fire Department waived its age rule and let him join at 17.
He admired firefighters and “spent a lot of time at the station.”
Berthelot, now a state representative and former Gonzales mayor and councilman, talked about his admiration for firefighters July 29 at the 40th annual Knights of Columbus Firefighter Appreciation Banquet.
During his early days as a volunteer fireman, Berthelot said, the only way to get firefighters out to a call was through the use of a landline telephone.
Before pagers or cellphones, Berthelot said, firefighters would get a call featuring a special ring “that wouldn’t stop until you picked it up.”
In those days, all of the firefighters were volunteers.
Berthelot said he couldn’t explain why anyone would volunteer to answer that phone in the middle of the night.
“It is in you — why — I can’t answer that. It was in me for many years,” he said.
Berthelot talked about a Darrow fire call, which resulted in a near-death experience and solidified his respect for people who choose firefighting as a career.
He said he was working as a nozzleman pouring water inside a house when he was told to exit the building. Just as he backed out of the house, the roof collapsed.
“It made a lasting impression on me,” he said.
After his time as a volunteer firefighter, Berthelot said he vowed to work as an elected official to do what he could he help fire departments in the area.
He said that as mayor he worked to pass a tax to support a paid department in Gonzales. That tax passed and the city’s paid department opened in 2001.
While in the Legislature, Berthelot supported several bills to aid firefighters, including a 2013 law that created a college tuition program for firefighters. He said money was set aside this year and firefighters can apply for the reimbursement program.
“It’s a way to say thank you,” he said.
Berthelot said he worked to get a $200,000 State Fire Marshal’s grant for Ascension Parish Fire Protection District 1.
“The money is in the bank,” said James LeBlanc, St. Amant fire chief and chairman of District 1.
LeBlanc, who served as master of ceremonies for the banquet, said the money will be used to buy protective clothing and self-contained breathing units for firefighters and vehicle rescue/extraction tools for the 5th Ward, 7th District, Galvez-Lake, Geismar, Sorrento, and St. Amant fire stations.
Berthelot praised firefighters attending the banquet for their dedication to the community. He also thanked their wives, children and relatives for supporting “them so they can do what they do for us.”
Eight firefighters and three junior firefighters were honored by Knights of Columbus from the St. Theresa of Avila, Father James Clement, St. Mark, St. John the Evangelist and Our Lady of Guadelupe councils.
Honorees for Firefighter of the Year are:
Kane Hanna, St. Amant Volunteer Fire Department
Preston Landry, Gonzales Fire Department
Bernard Joshua, Geismar Volunteer Fire Department
Michael Soniat, 7th District Fire
Kevin H. Smith, Prairieville Fire
David Letourneau, 5th Ward Fire
Zack LeBlanc, Sorrento Fire
Brian Landry, Galvez-Lake Fire
The Junior Firefighter of the Year awards went to Noah Estrada, St. Amant; and Justin Laviolette and Tyler Cusimano, Galvez-Lake.