Fire Chief John Lehman announces May 1 retirement
Published on December 01, 2022
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Following a distinguished 38-year career in the fire service, Grand Rapids Fire Chief John Shea Lehman is formally announcing his retirement effective May 1. Chief Lehman came to the GRFD in 2016 after serving 29 years (with the final three as Fire Chief) in Aurora, IL.
During Chief Lehman’s service to the City, the department was able to gain national accreditations by the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2016 and achieved ISO Class 1 in 2018.
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington said that Chief Lehman has left a legacy of servant leadership.
“The city has both benefited greatly from Chief Lehman’s hard work and dedication to the Grand Rapids Fire Department,” Washington said. “He has elevated an already superb fire department to one that is nationally recognized and one that is used as a benchmark for all departments striving for excellence.”
Under Chief Lehman’s leadership, the City of Grand Rapids has been recognized for having the best Residential Safety Program and continues to support GRFD’s federally funded initiative towards home fire Community Risk Reduction. Since 2013, 66,098 smoke and 9,949 CO alarms have been installed in 10,960 homes. Safety restrictions required during the COVID-19 pandemic created an opportunity for Chief Lehman to rethink how the GRFD provided smoke alarms. He and the department established a self-installation option where residents could participate in an online assessment along with an educational phone call.
During his tenure, Grand Rapids served as co-manager of the Michigan-Ohio-Indiana accreditation consortium, providing mentoring for other agencies. Furthermore, the Federal Highway Administration and the Roadway Safety Administration recognized Lehman’s efforts in keeping responders and citizens safe on high-speed roadways by implementing the department’s Traffic Management Program. The GRFD was also recognized with the John H. Logie Neighborhood Business Champion Award due to Chief Lehman’s efforts to make the city a safer community through extensive Fire Prevention efforts.
Chief Lehman is proud of bringing a more respectful relationship to the labor management partnership. He’s also very happy to have brought back the division of Emergency Management. Chief says this has proven to be invaluable to the department’s responses to natural disasters and the pandemic. For the first few years in Grand Rapids, Lehman not only served as the chief but also pulled double duty as the City’s emergency manager. Recognizing the crucial need for a full-time dedicated emergency manager, he is credited for brining on an experienced manager in 2019. Since this position was created, it has been invaluable to many different events that took place in the city including severe weather events, large scale emergencies, and crowd management.
“I have been extremely lucky to have served the City of Grand Rapids and the men and women of the Grand Rapids Fire Department,” Chief Lehman said. “No one person changes the morale of an organization, but I have worked with an incredible team which has valued our employees’ opened lines of communication and allowed change to happen.”
One of Chief Lehman’s biggest goals was to create a more diverse Fire Department. The last few classes have been the most diverse GRFD in history, with many more diverse candidates entering the process and making it onto the eligible list, into the academy, and on the streets serving the community. Chief Lehman has made 124 promotions, often guiding, mentoring, and coaching department members to lead the next generation of firefighters. Chief Lehman created the first GRFD Cadet Program to “grow our own firefighters” from the local community. The department now offers the opportunity for youth to work for the fire department for up to a year in various roles to see if the department is a good fit for them in the future. GRFD began hosting a summer youth academy for ages 15-18 years old to get highschoolers exposed to a possible career working for the fire department.
To ensure the GRFD had the most innovative lifesaving equipment and the department received extensive training, under Chief Lehman’s tenure the Department acquired just under $20 million dollars in grant awards. Chief Lehman’s focus on providing the most innovative lifesaving equipment and extensive training for GRFD resulted in the first dive team which enhanced the water rescue capabilities. He also created an assistant chief position to oversee fleet, facilities, and budget. Under Lehman, the department has purchased over 20 fire trucks, conducted millions of dollars of upgrades to the fire stations, and has begun land acquisition process to facilitate the building of new fire stations.
“Serving the people of Grand Rapids has been a perfect way to conclude my remarkable career in the fire service. I want to thank my team of fire professionals, city managers, fellow administrators and staff, mayor and city commissioners for welcoming me to the City and allowing me to lead this fine department. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to the Grand Rapids community for the many friendships and countless memories made over the past seven years.”
Chief Lehman is planning on enjoying his retirement with his wife, Rebekah, and building a retirement home on Washington Island, Wisconsin about 65 miles across from the lake from Leland, MI. They will be spending their time traveling to see friends and family when they’re not working in the woodshop or out on the boat.
In addition, Axel, the fire department’s Labrador mix fire dog, has decided to retire May 1 along with Chief Lehman. Axel has proudly served since July 2019 and will be enjoying his retirement chasing squirrels and cooling off in the lake.
Washington said he will launch a national search in the coming months to fill the fire chief position.