MARATHON COUNTY (WAOW)-- After more than two and a half decades with the Wausau Fire Department, Tom Leslie retires as Battalion Chief. The career encompasses the oversight of crews cutting down hundreds of fires. Chief Gary Buchberger nominated Leslie, 53, for the award.
"Tom is one of those guys that if you're in the middle of chaos, he's one of the guys you want to have right next you because he can think in that environment. He stays calm in that environment, and he's able, somehow, to maintain the big picture," said Buchberger.
Keeping the big picture in perspective was key during a fire on Grand Avenue in 2004. Flames break out on the bottom floor. The building's 10 stories are filled with elderly and disabled residents.
Leslie said, "Unfortunately, when you're dealing with a large population in a building some don't do what their supposed to. So, when the fire alarms go off they stay in there rooms and half an hour after the fire is out there's still smoke in the building, and we're getting calls for those on the 10th floor asking us to come get them out."
Four to five hours of controlling flames, rescuing residents, hauling equipment and it's over safely. A very different experience with that same safe outcome last February when Leslie's crew gets called to a house fire. Home video shows Leslie catch a man as he jumps from the second floor.
"I firmly believe that if Tom hadn't broken his fall, and caught him, that he'd probably have broken his leg or had some kind of injury,'' said Buchberger.
Leslie said, "You know, we caught him. It wasn't that far of a drop. We were able to break his fall, and it was a happy ending. It was a good outcome."
"As soon as Tom handed him over to the paramedics he went about his business being incident commander, which was directing crews into the house to put out the fire," said Buchberger.
Leslie says the goal in every situation is a safe outcome. He credits his successes to the incredible crews he's worked with, but not all situations turn out well. Leslie says he has learned the best tool an emergency responder can have is compassion.
"The one thing that's been emphasized to me throughout my career is that when people call us we might perceive their problem to be not so important based on dealing with very serious things on a regular basis, but to that person it's very important. For them it's very stressful. It's very traumatic," he said.
Leslie carries that with him in retirement as he teachers classes to other firefighters throughout the state. As an avid outdoors men, he also spends time hunting and fishing. And, while he doesn't consider himself a hero, he'll easily tell you who his are.
"My son and my daughter are my heroes," he said.
Leslie and others being recognized as Marathon County Real Heroes in 2010 will be honored during a ceremony April 15 in Wausau.