TOUCHING tributes have been paid to a 38-year-old Lowestoft firefighter, who died during a training exercise at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire.

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Alan Soards, from the Lowestoft South fire station, was taken ill while he was in the water on a fire service water rescue training course at the Olympic sports venue in Waltham Cross yesterday (Tuesday).

Suffolk’s chief fire officer Andy Fry said: “This is a very, very sad time for everyone concerned with Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, “Alan was taking part in a routine exercise in the water when he became unwell - it’s a tragedy.”

He was on a water rescue training course with colleagues from Lowestoft and others from Norfolk. Three ambulances and two air ambulances attended, but despite valiant attempts his firefighter colleagues and paramedics were unable to save his life.

An investigation is today underway in connection with the incident.

Mr Soards, who had been a firefighter for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service for 11 years, had worked at Lowestoft South station and had no history of medical issues.

Andy Fry, chief fire officer for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, said: “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.

“I want to pay tribute to the firefighters from both Suffolk and Norfolk who were with Alan yesterday and to our colleagues in the other emergency services who fought so hard to save his life.”

A council spokeswoman added: “An investigation into what happened in under way and we will be working with Hertfordshire police and the Health and Safety Executive.”

East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) spokesman Gary Sanderson said: “We were alerted at 11.32am to reports of a concern for welfare of a man at the Lee Valley White Water Centre on Station Road, Waltham Cross.

“We dispatched three ambulance resources and two air ambulance teams to the scene.”

A spokesperson for Lee Valley Regional Park Authority said: “Everyone at Lee Valley White Water Centre is very saddened about the news of firefighter Alan Soards’ death yesterday and our thoughts are with Alan’s family and friends. The incident took place during a Fire and Rescue Service training exercise on the Legacy Course – the smaller of the two courses at the centre. These training exercises have taken place regularly since the centre opened and are not related to our public canoeing or rafting activities.”

Paying tribute to Mr Soards, Mr Fry said: “Alan was just 38 years old and was a serving firefighter on white watch at Lowestoft South fire station.

“He was highly regarded by his colleagues - he 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.

“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.

“We are extremely grateful for the many offers of support and assistance received from fire service colleagues across the country and from the Chief Fire Officer’s Association. In particular, we welcome the offer made to us by colleagues from Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and The Fire Brigades Union to provide support during the investigation.”

Waveney MP Peter Aldous today expressed his “sincere condolences” to the family, friends and colleagues of firefighter Alan Soards, who was unexpectedly taken ill during a water rescue training course at Lea Valley.

Mr Aldous 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. It is appropriate to reflect on the invaluable work that those working in the emergency services carry out for the community.”

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