Fireman’s death has left a ‘big hole in the community’

TRIBUTES were paid this week to a Lowestoft firefighter who died during a training exercise at an Olympic venue.

Alan Soards, 38, was taken ill while he was taking part a water rescue course attended by Norfolk and Suffolk firefighters at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire on Tuesday.

A full-time firefighter for more than 11 years, Mr Soards was a member of white watch at Lowestoft South fire station and was part of the retained crew at Lowestoft North fire station.

Before joining the fire service, he also spent several years as a volunteer crew member with the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston RNLI Lifeboat and devoted some of his spare time delivering road safety presentations to teenage students at Lowestoft College and at schools across Waveney.

Flags flew at half-mast at Lowestoft South fire station and Gorleston lifeboat station on Wednesday, as his colleagues and former crewmates struggled to come to terms with the loss of a close friend.

Suffolk’s chief fire officer Andy Fry said the brigade was devastated by Mr Soards’ death.

He said: “Alan was at a fire service water rescue training course at Lee Valley White Water Centre when he was taken ill while in the water. Despite valiant attempts, his firefighter colleagues and paramedics were unable to save his life. Of course, our thoughts at this very sad time are with Alan’s family and friends and also with his firefighter colleagues who were with Alan at the time he was taken ill. Everyone has been stunned by these events.”

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He added: “Alan was an experienced, extremely professional and capable firefighter. He loved his job and was well respected by those who worked with him, many of whom also considered Alan to be a close friend.”

A former pupil of Cliff Park High School in Gorleston, Mr Soards gained a degree in applied physics at Coventry University, before he moved back to Gorleston and joined the lifeboat crew.

Mr Soards, who lived in Oulton, had to give up his role as lifeboat helmsman to be closer to his work as a fireman.

David Grief, a retired Gorleston lifeboatman who worked with Mr Soards, described himself as his “honorary uncle”.

Mr Grief, 71, said: “He was on the lifeboat quite a long time and was a respected crew member – everybody liked him.” His death had left a “big hole” in the community where he was “incredibly well known”, he added.

The Lee Valley White Water Centre hosted canoe events during the London 2012 games. However, the fire crews were using the smaller of the two courses at the centre on Tuesday.

Investigations were continuing into Mr Soards’ death yesterday with a post mortem examination due to be held.

Mr Fry added: “I want to pay tribute to the firefighters from both Suffolk and Norfolk who were with Alan (on Tuesday) and to our colleagues in the other emergency services who fought so hard to save his life. We have already started working very closely with colleagues from Hertfordshire police and the Health and Safety Executive to establish full details of what led to Alan’s untimely death.”

Mr Soards was part of a 10-strong team who used to present the fire service’s Learn and Live sessions at Lowestoft College and local high schools, passing on their own experiences and knowledge to thousands of young people.

Jenny Carter, head of learner services at UCS Lowestoft, said: “It is such sad news, he was passionate about working with young people in highlighting the risks and dangers they face on the roads.., organising and delivering presentations to over 450 students at Lowestoft College. He was a lovely man with a genuine desire to help people and he will be greatly missed.”

Waveney MP Peter Aldous expressed his sincere condolences to Mr Soards’ family. He said: “This is tragic news. Alan served with distinction in the fire service for many years and my thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time."

Mayor of Lowestoft Nick Webb said: “Losing someone we love is never easy but to lose someone we love in such unexpected, tragic circumstances is even harder to come to terms with. My sincerest condolences go out to Alan’s family, friends and work colleagues at this difficult time.”

Waveney District Council leader Colin Law said: “At moments like this, and in the week of the funerals for two WPCs in Manchester, you are reminded of the selfless bravery of so many people who devote themselves to saving and protecting lives. All our thoughts are with Alan’s friends and family at this difficult time.”

?A book of condolence will be available for the public to sign at Lowestoft South fire station in Stradbroke Road between 10am and 2pm, from Monday to Friday next week.