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updated: 4/29/2013 9:34 AM

New Aurora fire chief looks to build on department's history

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  • John Lehman was sworn in last month as Aurora's new fire chief. He has 26 years experience with the department and steps into the chief's position after serving three years as deputy chief.

       John Lehman was sworn in last month as Aurora's new fire chief. He has 26 years experience with the department and steps into the chief's position after serving three years as deputy chief.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

The 376th firefighter ever hired in the city of Aurora now is first in charge.

The city's new fire chief, John Lehman, has been wearing badge No. 376 proudly since he was hired in 1987.

That won't change as Lehman settles into the department's top role, and neither, he says, will his respect for the department's history or his commitment to serving and protecting the people of Aurora.

"My responsibilities are to the city, the citizens we protect, and all those badge numbers, past, present and future," Lehman said March 12 as he was sworn in as chief.

Lehman, 48, said he never intended to be a firefighter, but the people he met while a paid-on-call firefighter in his hometown of LaGrange Park intrigued him, mentored him and helped him develop an interest in the profession.

After graduating from Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Lehman spent some time at Marquette University, but he wasn't necessarily studying, he says.

"I wasn't a model student," Lehman said. "I didn't have enough direction."

He moved back to his hometown in 1984, and his father suggested he join the volunteer fire department -- after all, he had nothing better to do.

Lehman listened, volunteered, and soon he had direction. The first time he took a test to become a full-time firefighter, it was with Aurora in 1987, and he was hired.

"My fondest moments were when I was a firefighter -- one of the guys out there doing the work every day," Lehman said about his career so far. "The drive was to help people and be active and be part of the team that deals with emergencies."

By the time former Fire Chief Hal Carlson was ready to retire last year, Lehman had held several leadership positions and been the department's deputy chief for three years. He became one of three internal candidates to succeed Carlson and was chosen for his strong performance over 26 years and his ability to step up in difficult situations, Mayor Tom Weisner said.

Lehman will be paid $160,825 a year as chief.

As the city was in the throes last fall of what Weisner called the "birdman incident," in which Aurora resident Dave Skeberdis was found to have hoarded 478 birds -- 120 of them dead -- in his townhouse, Lehman handled media inquiries on behalf of the city.

"John really stepped up in representing the city," Weisner said. "It was just a testament to his overall abilities."

Lehman never minded serving as the department's public information officer, saying he has a knack for communicating. Providing public information is a role he'll continue as chief until he identifies another leader with the skills and willingness to do it.

But Lehman's main role now is to keep the department running smoothly from the administrative side and provide the resources and support the firefighters, paramedics, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs and commanders need to do their jobs.

"I'm not the coach," he said. "I'm more of a cheerleader."

Leading 190 firefighters who protect people and property in a city of 198,000 comes with plenty of challenges, and Lehman said they include addressing areas where better coverage is needed and budgeting for infrastructure and vehicle replacement.

The department handles about 17,000 calls a year -- about 65 percent of them for emergency medical service -- out of nine stations scattered across the sprawling city of 46 square miles.

The far northeast side of town, north of I-88 around Butterfield, Farnsworth and Eola roads, is one area where Lehman would like to improve coverage.

"We know that's an area we need to grow into," Lehman said.

About 500 calls a year come in from that territory, which is enough to justify a fire station hosting an ambulance company to respond as quickly as possible, he said.

He also would like to expand Station 7 on Kenilworth Place on the city's west side so it can host a two-person ambulance crew along with the three-person team always stationed there. The Station 7 firefighters are the city's busiest engine company, but hosted out of a "small, cramped" station built in 1957.

As he addresses challenges of expansion, infrastructure and staffing, Lehman said he will draw on the department's history of working together to solve problems.

"We've had very good direction and good leadership and we've tried to be very innovative," Lehman said. "I'm a big proponent of maintaining those traditions and building on them."

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