There was no hesitating when newly-retired Ferriday Fire Chief Joe Sontoyo was asked what he will miss the most about his job.
“Fighting fires,” Sontoyo said. “I’ve been doing it a long time.”
Sontoyo spent 38 years in the firefighting business, first under former Ferriday Fire Chief E.E. Wallace before becoming Ferriday Fire Chief in 2008, and returning after a short time away as fire chief in 2016.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Sontoyo said. “We all stick together.”
Sontoyo, 74, graduated from Ferriday High in 1967. After graduation, he drove a truck for his father, Jose Sontoyo.
Sontoyo went to work with the Ferriday Police Department in 1979.
“I had moved to Michigan and was working for Ford Motor Company,” Sontoyo said. “I came back here after four years and my dad did not want me to go back. I knew a lot of people here and went looking for a job, and I ended up at the Ferriday Police Department.
Sontoyo became post-certified at Alexandria Police Academy, and was certified as an intoxilyzer operator.
After a year-and-a-half, Sontoyo took a job as a firefighter for former Ferriday Fire Chief E.E. Wallace.
“His philosophy was, ‘Get that hose and put water on that red stuff,’” Sontoyo said. “And, he always said that with a laugh.’
Sontoyo said Wallace brought in people to help instruct firefighters.
“LSU started having fire-training classes for firefighters, which really helped,” he said.
Sontoyo is certified as an arson investigator.
He became fire chief in 2008 under former Ferriday Mayor Glen McGlothin.
“I just tried to improve on everything as much as I could,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to help the community. I always wanted to be here for the community.”
Sontoyo ran for mayor in 2012, forcing a runoff with Gene Allen, who was voted in as mayor. It was the first-ever political race for Sontoyo.
“You really have to beat the bushes,” he said. “It was different, but I enjoyed visiting the people.”
After not being retained by Allen, Sontoyo went to work for the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office from 2012 to 2016.
When Sherrie McMahon was elected mayor in 2016, Sontoyo returned as fire chief
“That’s one of the toughest parts of the job, you never know if you have a job or not,” Sontoyo said.
Sontoyo brought Ferriday’s Property Insurance Association of Louisiana (PIAL)insurance rating down from a 10 to its current 7.
PIAL is a private, non-profit group composed of all insurance companies licensed to write fire and other Louisiana coverages. Founded in 1888, PIAL is funded solely by assessment of its member companies.
During the inspection, PIAL officials check water supply, fire hydrants, training and comb through the fire department’s paperwork.
Insurance companies use information obtained from the rating to develop premium costs for commercial properties and residential properties in Ferriday.
“There’s a lot of paperwork and training involved in the job,” Sontoyo said. “It’s tough, also, because you have a lot of turnover, which leads to a change in personalities.”
Sontoyo said bringing the insurance rating down is a big highlight.
But, in typical Sontoyo fashion, the biggest highlight is the people he worked with and wanted to give all the credit for the department’s work.
“I always wanted things to be done right,” he said. “I loved training people to do their job and passing on my knowledge.”
Two memorable events were the 1997 fire at Ferriday Junior High and the 2001 fire at the former Pasternack’s building on First Street.
“Pasternack’s was four days of turmoil, while the school was five days of turmoil,” he said,
As for the next fire chief?
“They better stay on the top of their game, keep on the paperwork because things change every day,”Sontoyo said. “The biggest change has been how to fight fires. The materials are so much different now, it’s a bit more dangerous. You have to make sure everyone is suited up.”
Sontoyo said he and his wife, Laura, plan on spending a lot more time with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the future.
“I’ll also be getting in some fishing and golf,” Sontoyo said. “It’s been a fun ride, but it’s time to move on.”