Richard Liebmann becomes Montreal’s first Jewish fire chief

As a teenager, Richard Liebmann knew what his life’s work would be when the baby began breathing again, and anguish was replaced by relief and joy on the parents’ faces.

That was almost 40 years ago. Liebmann, a volunteer with Cote St. Luc’s emergency medical team, was on the call that managed to stabilize the critically ill infant on the way to hospital.

In January, Liebmann, now 55, was named Montreal’s fire chief after more than 35 years working as a paramedic and, for the last 27 years, as a firefighter steadily rising through the ranks.

Liebmann is the 23rd fire chief in the 158-year history of the city’s professional fire department, and the first Jewish one. The last time an anglophone held the post was 1937.

As director of the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal (SIM), he commands a force of close to 2,500 firefighters and an annual budget of $350 million. The service covers the entire Island of Montreal; that’s 67 stations in 19 boroughs and 15 demerged municipalities.

Liebmann is also the coordinator of Montreal’s overall emergency management, a job that has taken on unimagined responsibility with COVID. He became acting fire chief last February, a month before the pandemic was declared, filling in for Bruno Lachance who went on sick leave until his retirement.

It’s an unlikely career path for a Jewish day school graduate and son of Hungarian Jews who immigrated in 1956. Growing up in majority Jewish Cote St. Luc, where Liebmann still lives, was a major factor because of its active civilian emergency response corps.

While attending Bialik High School, Liebmann took a CPR course and was attracted to the excitement of riding in ambulances. Seeing that baby get a second chance at life thanks to the EMTs’ intervention made it much more than a youthful lark.

At 18, he headed to Ohio to study paramedics at a time when it was not yet a recognized profession in Quebec. While he says his parents always supported his decision, he also then earned a degree in psychology at McMaster University. (In recent years, Liebmann burnished his c.v. with a certificate in public leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.)

Liebmann was a firefighter in Cote St. Luc from 1993-2000 and head of that division from 2000-2002. The sweeping municipal mergers at that time brought Liebmann into the island-wide fire service, starting as director of public affairs and media relations – effectively spokesperson – for several years.

Liebmann is hesitant to make too much of his being Jewish or anglophone (he works entirely in French). “Personal faith is not something I like to put a lot of emphasis on; ability to perform the function is what matters.” 

Teamwork is critical in firefighting, he said. “When your life depends on another person, you do not think about their faith or cultural origin.”

At the same time, Liebmann and the City of Montreal hope his appointment will be an example to young people from minorities, whether ethnic, racial, gender or sexual orientation, not traditionally represented in the field.

“Firefighting is an honourable and noble profession,” he affirmed. “It’s about saving lives, and that’s a top priority in Judaism.” But, he stressed that, in the pursuit of diversity, there can be no lowering of the rigorous physical and psychological standards.

Since 2010, the fire service has also intervened in medical emergencies. Firefighters are usually on the scene before Urgences Santé after a 911 call, he said. Today, almost 1,800 members of the force are qualified first responders and that will increase, he added.

Although he always had his blessing, Liebmann said his father Andrew is rightly chuffed these days. (His mother passed away in 1999.) His two college-aged children, more interested in the arts, are not following in dad’s footsteps.

As for the popular image of firefighters cooking up a storm at the station between alarms, Liebmann confesses, “With a Hungarian mother and grandmother who were great cooks, I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. I am pretty good with the barbecue though,” he said, no doubt keeping those flames in check.

In announcing his nomination, Mayor Valérie Plante stated: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mr. Liebmann has done a remarkable job of managing the SIM and coordinating civil security for the agglomeration. His great knowledge of operations as well as his numerous years of experience in the field of public security makes him the ideal candidate to pursue the work begun in a highly exceptional context.”

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