LOCK KEEPERS have said plans to take away their fire extinguishers and lock ladders so they don’t put themselves at risk by saving lives are ridiculous and dangerous.
The Environment Agency, which employs lock keepers, has said they are not trained to use fire extinguishers – which have instructions written on them.
The EA has also said that because some safety ladders might be too heavy for lock keepers to lift, all of them should be binned.
The organisation has proposed getting rid of all fire extinguishers and lock ladders for the whole length of the River Thames, despite not consulting with any of its lock keepers, who have now said the proposals put lives at risk.
One Oxfordshire lock keeper, who didn’t want to be named, said he had used his safety ladder three times already this year to rescue people who had fallen in the river.
He said: “This proposal is seriously dangerous, and the fact they haven’t even asked us whether we can use our ladders is bizarre.
“You only need to Google ‘carbon fibre ladders’ and you can lightweight ladders – there must be some reason behind this other than safety.”
With regard to the proposed ban on fire extinguishers he said: “They have told us we should throw them a life ring, phone the fire brigade, then stand there and watch.
“Given how remote some of our sites are, it’s just ridiculous – the fire service is under enough pressure.”
Another Oxfordshire keeper said: “Every single lock keeper is up in arms about it.
“What do they expect us to do, just stand there watching people drown? Every lock keeper has used their ladder – people fall in the river all the time.”
Dennis Hill and his wife Jill, who have a boat on the Thames at Buckland, said they were shocked by the proposals.
Mr Hill, 74, said: “There has been a hell of a furore – staff are furious about it.”
Fire extinguishers have been kept at lock offices for years, so that anyone can use one in an emergency while a lock keeper is on duty.
In Oxfordshire there are 17 lock sites, each of which has one lock ladder and two fire extinguishers for public use.
But in a letter seen by the Oxford Mail, EA waterways manager Andrew Graham told lock keepers: “Our water training and rescue providers have recently reviewed our use of fire extinguishers at lock sites and have advised fire extinguishers should be present only if risk assessment requires it for staff to extinguish small fires or escape from buildings on the lock.
“If the EA provides fire extinguishers for public to use on board boats in the lock, there is a duty of care and a liability issue, so would recommend they are removed from public areas. EA staff should not be fighting fires on boats in the lock.”
The EA already requires all boat owners to have a fire extinguisher on board in order to get a boat licence, and the staff notice said: “Boaters have a responsibility for their own safety”.
The letter concluded: “Having extinguishers at lock sites would leave the temptation for our dedicated and committed staff to use them, despite not being trained to do so, in the process putting themselves at risk.
“It could also lead to a false sense of safety to boaters.”
With regard to the ladder decision, the letter said: “On reviewing the HSE guidance, it was clear the ladders we have fall outside HSE requirements and some ladders are as much as two times heavier than the guidance.
“It was concluded that the existing ladders should no longer be used by our staff single handed as the risk of injury was too high.”
In a statement to the Oxford Mail the EA said it was still discussing the proposals with staff and had made no final decisions yet.
It also said: “If a boat catches fire in a lock, we expect our staff to immediately call 999 and then provide assistance to get people away from any danger wherever it is safe to do so.
“We provide training and equipment to help them do this. We do not provide any training or equipment to put out boat fires as this is not a requirement of their role.”