Our story last week about plans to remove fire-fighting equipment and rescue ladders from locks on the non-tidal Thames has resulted in strong reactions from readers.

We revealed that the Environment Agency was planning to withdraw fire-fighting equipment from locks to be replaced by a small extingusher and also to take away rescue ladders because they were too heavy.

Our story about the planned changes is HERE and the Environment Agency's detailed statement is HERE.

Other media have taken up the story notably the Oxford Mail who splashed it on their front page on Monday with a follow up debate on later editionsbetween boater Louis Jankel and Waterways boss Andrew Graham.

Here are a selection of more of our readers'reactions:

Bill Watts a boat owner at Shepperton says: "May I offer the following thoughts on this proposal:

  • An emergency in a confined area, e.g. a lock, requires swift action and appropriate tools must be readily available. It is not sufficient to wait for emergency services.
  • Not expecting lock-keepers to put themselves at risk is very different from removing all the means by which they could act if they felt it appropriate.
  • The present system has worked satisfactorily for generations - how many lock-keepers have been injured so far in the manner suggested?
  • Surely Health and Safety professionals should concern themselves with the health and safety of ALL parties, not just of EA employees?
  • This proposal looks like an economy measure and is in my view potentially dangerous.


Cliff Colborne writes: "What a complete load of utter rubbish!

I was a Lock keeper on the Thames under the Thames Conservancy, Thames Water, the National Rivers Authority and the E.A., and although retired for over 12 years, remain a regular boater. Throughout my time, every lock had printed instructions for the action to be taken in the event of a fire on a launch, which included fighting the fire after getting everybody off and calling the fire brigade; although at many locks there was no chance  of the brigade getting there in a short time, and not at all in some cases. We were trained in the use of fire extinguishers, including the correct one to use for different types of fire,  and in the good old days attended group training days, actually boarding an old wooden boat filled with straw and diesel to ensure a good blaze. 

On one occasion, the first guy to go aboard put the whole lot out with one good burst of dry powder, and they never managed to re-light it for the rest of us to have a go! This shows the importance of IMMEDIATE action.

The EA is quoted as saying “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”. The first part of this is absolutely right –  but it is possible to make a reasonable attempt without taking an unreasonable risk. And as for the second point – well they SHOULD provide training, as they always used to.

Of COURSE boaters are responsible for their own safety, including having fire extinguishers on board. Our training used to say “don’t waste time with any extinguishers on the boat”  because  the lock ones were large, regularly maintained  and therefore reliable. We even had spare charges of powder and gas in case one was insufficient, and were  trained to recharge as quickly as possible.

There were also standard procedures for the action to be taken in the event of a person falling into the lock, which was to immediately close all paddles (now called sluices), throw a lifebelt near but not at the person, and get the safety ladder, but never to enter the water one’s self. I personally used the ladder without difficulty on many occasions over the years, as did many colleagues.   If a Lock Keeper is too weak to handle the lightweight aluminium ladder, he or she shouldn’t be employed in the first place, as the job always required a degree of strength, particularly on the unpowered locks and weirs.

At this rate,  the next stage will be not to allow the Lock Keeper to help people by taking ropes, particularly if the boat is going too fast, in case they strain something or catch their pinkies on a bollard; followed by not even working the lock, to avoid Repetitive Strain Injury from pushing the buttons. And no doubt the hitchers used on the unpowered locks to open the second gate will be the next  things to be declared too heavy, and the Lock Keepers will have to walk round to the other side to do it, unless the boaters can be persuaded to help.                  

OK, I’m disillusioned and cynical. That’s why I retired five years early. But it looks to me like the EA are hiding behind Health and Safety to save money by withdrawing equipment and training  that have been considered essential for at least fifty years. The original H & S legislation made much use of the words “reasonable” and “practical”, but these went by the board years ago. The first casualty was the notice in every lock office which said “Safety just means doing things properly”! It seems perverse that anyone with any intelligence should make changes to procedures which have endured for many years, which while allegedly improving  H & S for lock staff, actually create greater risks for the boating public.  What about Duty of Care for the “customers”?


Another boater who prefers not to be named says:

If any feedback is being collected to send to the EA, we, as users of the Marlow-Sonning stretch, would add to the objections to this new EA policy. It seems only common sense for a lock to have a ladder, a fire extinguisher, a life ring, basic first aid gear, even a defibrillator perhaps.

The EA is perhaps concerned about liability; it can instead make clear that training is not supplied and no liability is accepted by its lock masters. But it is sensible to have basic equipment at hand. The locks have ladders and fire extinguishers now. The plan is to spend resources taking them away? To where? Storage? Does not seem to make sense.

Not all river users were against the changes as can be seen from the River Thames Forum:

What are your views? email us HERE