GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The city of Grand Rapids will soon begin the search for a new fire chief.

John Lehman, who took over the state’s second largest fire department in 2016, announced his retirement Thursday morning.

Lehman has been able to change the department for the better. But he is the first to admit, he hasn’t done it alone.

When he came to Grand Rapids more than six years ago, Lehman found a department in need of a reset.

Grand Rapids Fired Department crews were good at putting out fires and answering other emergencies, but some things were missing. 

“It was an organization in need of change and in need of some things that they felt like they’d been deprived of,” Lehman said. “I think that one of the things that we were able to do was listen. Listen really intently to what the issues were. And then work on where we could change things that needed to be changed. “

From upgrading equipment and boosting diversity in the department, to increasing the department’s insurance agency rating — the measure of efficiency of fire departments — to Class 1, which is top among fire departments in the US, Lehman has been able to accomplish much in the last six years. 

The biggest challenge of his career came in 2020.

“No time in my career would I ever have thought that a pandemic would have been something we would have had to plan for,” Lehman said.

Despite a steep learning curve, Lehman said the pandemic helped improve planning for the future.

“We now have systems and processes in place. We have equipment. We have stockpiles in reserve in the event that this ever happens again, which we really need to keep on our radar,” he said.

Lehman has also been able to create a better working relationship with the firefighters and their union.

“He’s come in and saw a need for this department to grow for the citizens,” Grand Rapids Firefighters Local 366 President Joe Dubay said. “For the first time in a long time, I’ve actually got to work with the city and not fight them. “

It’s not just Lehman who will walk out of the firehouse on May 1. Axel, the lab mix rescue that’s become the GRFD’s unofficial K-9, will retire with the Chief.

Axel will join Lehman and his wife on their next adventure, building a retirement home on Washington Island in Lake Michigan off the northern Wisconsin shore.

“I feel like in the time I’ve been here, we’ve accomplished some significant things,” Lehman said. “I’m proud of those. But I think it’s time for somebody else to invent a new plan, making this place move forward in a better way.“

The city will conduct a nationwide search for a new fire chief in the next few months.