West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service’s Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Neil Stocker, will retire at the end of this month after 29 ½ years of service to the communities of West Sussex.

Neil joined the service as a firefighter at Crawley Fire Station in June 1991. He went on to become Group Manager, Area Manager, and Assistant Chief Fire Officer before becoming the Deputy Chief Fire Officer and Director of Public Protection in 2017.

He also served as acting Chief Fire Officer from June until September 2019, during which he steered the service diligently through some incredibly difficult times.

Neil said: “Serving our communities as a member of WSFRS for 29 ½ years has meant so much to me as we all join to ensure we can help people in their hour of need and I have been able to give that help as part of an amazing team.

“I am so proud to have served with such an amazing people that makes up WSFRS from Fleet, HR, Finance, IT, People and Organisational Development, Prevention, Protection, Response, WSCC and so many more, together we are an amazing team and all are needed to keep WSFRS as the vibrant heart of our community preventing and protecting our communities from harm.

“WSFRS has allowed me develop as a person and a team member to be the very best I could be and the friendships both locally and nationally that I have been lucky enough to have made I will cherish for ever.”

Neil added that the things he would miss most from his time in the service were the “laughter, camaraderie, the support and help from everyone in WSFRS and the satisfaction of helping changes lives for the better”.

He said: “Some things have changed since I started at Crawley in what was then West Sussex Fire Brigade particularly the uniform. Back then we had wellington boots, cork hats, gardening gloves and yellow plastic leggings, some of which are not great in a fire!

“Now firefighters have the very best uniform and Personal Protective Equipment. The most important change is that we are more open and able to ask for help with the traumas we face at incidents and we recognise that it’s OK NOT TO BE OK.”

Many emergency incidents over their years have left their mark with Neil, notably the first house fire he attended, which was so hot his yellow leggings shrink-wrapped themselves around his legs, resulting in him needing colleague Colin Tamon to soak him because he was so hot.

He also attended a fire at The British Caledonian hanger at Gatwick where, although it was raining, it was so hot the ground around it for 40ft was dry.

He also made it into the national papers after attending a ‘hazardous substance’ incident, when the substance turned out to be spicy German sausages and feta cheese!

He was also in attendance as part of the 20 pump fire at Slaugham Manor, the Sussex Police Training Centre, the second time it burnt down, and was the Incident Commander at the 19 pump fire at the Redlands Night Club fire in Burgess Hill.

Neil was also mobilised to the Shoreham Airshow crash in 2015. Reflecting on the incident, he said: “Being the fire service incident commander at the Shoreham Air crash major incident will always be with me and so many blue light colleagues, some of the darkest days. But as a joint blue light and West Sussex County Council team we were able to deal with the incident and support the families and communities that were so devastated by the incident. It was the saddest and most emotional moment of my career, but I was so very proud of my colleagues in WSFRS and WSCC.

“It truly has been for me the greatest experience of a lifetime. I have been so lucky to have been part of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. Long may it be the beating heart of our community protecting us all and keeping us safe!”

Chief Fire Officer, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, praised Neil for his decades of service to the county. She said: “Neil’s retirement is an incredibly sad day for us all, but we all wish him all the very best in the next chapter of his life.

“I have only worked alongside Neil for a little over a year, but in that time he has been an absolute rock to me. Having his support as I joined the service made getting to work all the more easier, and I know we would not be where we are today without his perseverance and diligence to his job.

“His work with the Sussex Resilience Forum in the wake of COVID-19 this year has only confirmed his role within the community as a reliable and safe pair of hands to go to in the moment of crisis.

“I know that he leaves the service in a much stronger place than which he found it, 29 and-a-half-years ago.”

Duncan Crow, Cabinet Member for Fire & Rescue and Communities, said: “The service Neil has shown the people of West Sussex over the last three decades has been unwavering, and I know I speak for everyone here when I wish him all the best for a long and enjoyable retirement.”