Hundreds gathered in Gorleston on Friday to pay their respects to much-loved and admired Lowestoft firefighter Alan Soards, who died in a training exercise.

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Members from 40 fire brigades across the country were among more than 600 people who attended the funeral at St Andrews Church.

Mr Soards, who was a firefighter with the Suffolk Fire Service for 11 years, died on October 2 at Lee Valley White Water Centre at Waltham Cross, aged 38.

At the funeral he was described by Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Suffolk Mark Hardingham as a “committed, consummate professional”, and was given a full firefighter’s funeral, with cortege of fire engines, standard bearers from the fire service and RNLI - which he was a volunteer with - and guard of honour.

Mr Hardingham said: “We wanted to come together with Alan’s family and friends to share in their grief and sadness, but also to celebrate his life - he was taken too soon.

Alan Soards's coffin was taken to the funeral on a fire engineAlan Soards's coffin was taken to the funeral on a fire engine

“He made an enormous contribution, to not just the service but to everything he got involved in.

“We have representatives here from just about every fire service in the country. His family agreed this is what he would have wanted.”

Before the funeral 18 firefighters and chief fire officer Andy Fry formed a guard of honour outside Lowestoft South Fire Station, where Mr Soards served, and stood to attention when his coffin left the station on a fire engine.

About 20 people watched the cortege leave the fire station, led by piper and long-time friend Dale Wallace, from Norfolk fire service, as traffic was halted to allow the cortege to pass.

At the church in Gorleston, members of the public gathered on the street outside watched as eight pallbearers in formal uniforms carried the coffin into the church through a guard of honour made up of firemen from forty different brigades across the country.

Speakers broadcast the service outside the church for a small crowd who had stayed in the church grounds to hear the tributes.

Colleagues and senior management paid tribute to an experienced, highly committed firefighter with a cheeky smile and strong sense of humour.

Mr Soard’s dog Tyson was dressed up in a fire service uniform, which would have made Mr Soards chuckle, said Neil Henderson, watch commander at Lowestoft South Fire Station, in a tribute read out in the church.

Mr Henderson remarked how Mr Soards was known for breaking equipment, having a strong sense of humour and also only epitomised what the public expect in a firefighter.

He also made close friends with many who worked with him.

Andy Fry, chief of Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, said in his tribute the full firefighter’s funeral was “what Alan would have wanted.”

Mr Fry added: “Alan was highly regarded by his colleagues as an experienced, expert and highly-committed professional. He was also considered by many who worked with him to be a close friend.

“As we mourn the loss of Alan at today’s service, we should also reflect on, and be thankful for, the outstanding contribution he made during his 11-years service as a firefighter in Lowestoft – a contribution for which we are all sincerely grateful.

“He will be truly missed and always remembered.”

Toni Watts, 58, from The Shrublands in Gorleston, said: “It is hard to say why I have come today, I did not know him personally but I just felt I should pay my respects. It is so sad, he was so young.”

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

As well as his front-line duties, he 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 his own experiences and knowledge to thousands of young people.

A fund has been set up in memory of Mr Soards, The Alan Soards Memorial Fund will be used to help improve the skills of local fire service crews.

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