A row has erupted over planned changes to procedures at Thames locks which boating organisations say threaten lives.

They say fire-fighting equipment is being withdrawn and lock-keepers told not to tackle fires; and also that ladders kept by the lock for emergencies are to be withdrawn because they are too heavy.

The Environment Agency has defended the plan saying it is not lock keepers’ duty to fight fires and they could be putting themselves at risk – and confirmed ladders are too heavy so should not be used.

A letter from the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO) chairman Dr Mike Rodd to EA chairman Sir Philip Dilley says the two areas of policy change place Thames boaters at greater risk of injury or death if implemented.

The letter says: “We understand that it is proposed that lock and weir keepers should no longer attempt to fight any boat fires in or near their lock. We have also been advised that the existing fire extinguishers available at the lock-side for use in such circumstances are to be removed and replaced with a single 1-kilo unit that would be inadequate to help put out a fire in a boat.

“Presumably, now, in the event of a fire the lock and weir keepers are expected to call the emergency services and wait."


On the policy about rescue ladders, the letter says “Despite their weight, for 40 years they have still allowed endangered boaters to climb out of a frightening environment. However, if someone does fall in the future, presumably again the new instruction is to call the emergency services?

“Another 10-minute-plus delay for a child/OAP immersed in a cold water chamber with slimy walls, especially in freezing cold water, would be likely to result in deaths.”

The Association of Thames Yacht Clubs has also protested. Its deputy chairman Mike Chambers, who is also a Boat Safety Scheme examiner, says he find reasoning behind the removal of the lock side fire extinguishers to be “seriously flawed.”

He says: “I am appalled at the comments regarding EA staff being tempted to use fire extinguishers and putting themselves at risk. Do I assume that if I come across you in a burning car that I leave you to die because I am not trained to use the fire extinguisher I carry in my car and I might be putting myself at risk?

“This country awards the VC and other medals to people who put themselves at risk to save lives; the RNLI is composed of volunteers who put themselves often at very serious risk and I sincerely trust that I will never find myself in a situation where I would have to say that a keeper did nothing in a serious incident as he might be putting himself at risk.”

The EA said all powered boats on the Thames are required to carry fire extinguishers under the Boat Safety Scheme.

The agency said:” We don’t require or expect our staff to put themselves at risk by attempting to put out a fire on a boat and don’t provide any equipment or training for this purpose.

“Our staff are not members of an emergency service and we don’t expect them to behave as though they are. If a boat catches fire in one of our locks their instructions are clear: they must immediately call the emergency services and then provide whatever assistance they can to get people away from the fire without putting themselves, or others, at risk. That is all.

“Boaters are primarily responsible for their own safety, and enter our lock sites at their own risk. “

On the safety ladders it says a health and safety reviews had found “that the ladders are too heavy, should not therefore be used, and ought to be removed from sites. Other rescue equipment on site (life rings, throw lines, pool hooks, chains and egress steps) are more than sufficient to manage any incident.

“We are discussing both these issues with staff. In the meantime, staff have been instructed that they must not employ the ladders single-handed and should only use them when a colleague is available to help.”

Read the NAOB letter in full HERE
Read the Environment Agency response in detail HERE

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Story dated October 10th 2015