Oxford Mail:

Louis Jankel, 73, from London, a member of the Inland Waterways Association

I’ve spent 120 days working as a volunteer lock keeper for the Environment Agency, and I’ve been using the Thames for 25 years so I know how these things work.

I also understand the problems that can occur because of lock manning and lock servicing.

The agency wishes to take away certain safety facilities, but it has used the excuse that ladders are too heavy for lock staff to use, and it seems that without fire extinguishers staff should just leave boaters to burn if there is an accident.

If you are filling up the lock you must leave the gates closed. If a boat catches fire when the lock is empty, there is no way of people getting out of the lock. The only way would be to use a ladder so what are they supposed to do now?

I just cannot believe that anyone involved with the agency could be so incompetent and ignorant.

Imagine you are by the lock, a boat comes in and bursts into flames.

The staff haven’t got a fire extinguisher so all they can do is watch the people burn, and try to call for an ambulance.

Of course some sites have very difficult access, ambulance staff might have problems getting to the lock and by then it may be too late. This plan they have come up with is just not feasible.

The agency seems to expect keepers to stand there and do nothing, but they are human and it is not in their nature.

I have four fire extinguishers in my boat and they are all attached to the wall, as is required for safety.

But if your boat catches fire, you do not want to walk down your boat, through smoke and flames, just to get to an extinguisher.

The people who make these decisions clearly know nothing about boating, and if they say that they have the backing of lock-keepers they are just lying.

There is not a single person I know who would agree; all the agency wants to do is keep cutting costs.

This is the most terrible indictment of the management of the Environment Agency – these people are making idiots out of themselves.

If they are to solve this problem, they must listen to people who actually understand the river.


Oxford Mail:

Andrew Graham, Environment Agency waterway manager for the non-tidal Thames, based in Wallingford

There are two things here. One is the lock ladders. This is something that has been in discussion between management and staff health & safety representatives for some years.

It was brought to our attention by staff reps. Some of these ladders are very long and heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. While some staff members are large and strong, some are smaller. The ladders are very big and very heavy.

We are finding a way to resolve this. We have a lot of safety equipment around – the lock ladder is not the only safety equipment we have there.

But it’s something potentially hazardous to staff when they try to use it.

It has to conform with all British Standards as a piece of working equipment. We can’t just go out and buy a flimsy ladder from a home store. We agreed with the external consultants when they said we should stop using the ladders. When your managing health and safety for your own staff, and when someone tells us to stop doing something, then it’s quite important to stop doing that. Unfortunately staff and customers are concerned. But what we will emphasise is there is plenty of safety equipment.

With the fire extinguishers, we only put them out when people are on duty, and lock them up as they might otherwise get vandalised. For many years, the instructions given to lock-keepers was ring the emergency services if there is a fire and keep everyone away.

They have never been asked to fight a fire.

They should be helping the people on the boat.

Every boat on the river must have sufficient fire extinguishers, to allow boaters to make their escape. Our lock keepers’ role is to make sure everyone else is safe. We are not in the game of trying to put out a boat fire if nobody is on it.

We want people to be safe, not the boat.

Boaters have to look after their own safety.

That’s why it’s so important for them to have their own emergency plan and fire extinguisher. People need to take responsibility for their own safety.