A prominent fire fighter and ‘the beating heart of Bideford’ is retiring tomorrow (Thursday) after 31 years.

Neil Blackburn, 49, first joined Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service when he was 18 years old – but his desire to be a fire fighter began years before.

“When I was three years old I went to a station open day and got lifted into a fire engine, and since then it was always in the back of my mind,” said Neil.

His work in the service saw him stationed at Plymouth for 15-16 years, before moving back to North Devon in 2003, where he became group commander.

Neil Blackburn, pictured with the Bideford crew, dignitaries, and other agencies, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.Neil Blackburn, pictured with the Bideford crew, dignitaries, and other agencies, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.

For the last few years, Neil has worked at headquarters in Exeter as head of control operations.

Of the many complicated rescues Neil has overseen, one of his career highlights was working to rescue South Molton mum Vanessa Glover when she became trapped in raging floodwater at Umberleigh in December 2012.

Neil said: “That one really sticks in my mind; it was all of the agencies working together really well. We all came together in the right way with a very positive outcome.

Incident commander Neil Blackburn speaking to the Gazette at the scene of the Bell Inn fire at Parkham last year.Incident commander Neil Blackburn speaking to the Gazette at the scene of the Bell Inn fire at Parkham last year.

“I’ve also had some really challenging road traffic collisions I’ve attended where people have been in very precarious situations, but to see them walking down the street a year later is just amazing.”

Bideford mayor Dermot McGeough paid tribute to Neil.

“For me, he is the beating heart of Bideford,” said Mr McGeough.

Neil Blackburn, pictured with Bideford mayor Dermot McGeough, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.Neil Blackburn, pictured with Bideford mayor Dermot McGeough, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.

“His service to Bideford has been impeccable and what he has done for this area is fantastic.”

Colleagues Bruce Lesslie, Neil Hole and Graham Rooke said Neil would be sorely missed by crews.

“He gave everybody value and always gave people time and listened to them,” said Neil.

Neil (left) with fire fighters at Bideford doing Movember in 2011.Neil (left) with fire fighters at Bideford doing Movember in 2011.

Graham added: “His enthusiasm and professionalism will be missed.

“He is one of the most well- known and respected members of the North Devon fire community and always wants the best.”

Torridge police sector inspector Shaun Kenneally praised Neil’s drive for helping bring local agencies together. He said: “I found him to be very effective and we’ve created some really good working partnerships.”

Neil Blackburn, pictured with the Bideford crew, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.Neil Blackburn, pictured with the Bideford crew, is retiring after 31 years with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service this week.

Town and district councillor Mervyn Langmead added: “Neil has been a genuine asset to Bideford and it’s been a pleasure for me to know him.”

Neil said he is unsure what his next venture will be after his last day tomorrow (Thursday), though he will continue his work with Bideford’s youth football teams.

“I will miss the people the most; it has been a pleasure” he added.