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Andy Parsons

Quit your job, become a... flood barrier controller

By
Danielle Goldstein
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Steve East 56, engineering manager and controller at the Thames Barrier

How did you come to be in charge of the gates of the Thames?

‘I initially came to the Thames Barrier 30 years ago as an administrative manager. I then worked through various technical manager roles over the years, which eventually led to being engineering manager and acting as part of the team that controls the Thames Barrier and its associated gates: King George V, Dartford Creek and Barking.’

What do you do all day?

‘When we’re in operation mode, I’ve got a seat up in the control tower where we have expert forecasters 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They pass data to the controller, who decides whether to use the barrier or not. You can’t afford to get that decision wrong.’

Have you ever got it wrong?

‘Not so far, touch wood! If we need to close, we need to close, but you can’t take the easy option all the time because it’ll wear the barrier out, and it has an impact on river traffic and the ecology of the river. In fact, under the Thames Barrier Act, improper use of the barrier can carry a maximum term of 14 years’ imprisonment!’

Is it usually fairly plain sailing out there?

‘We once had a ship called the Sand Kite hit us in heavy fog. It discharged its cargo of aggregate on top of one of our large, 61-metre gates then sank. It took 11 days to clear the aggregate from the gate and recover the vessel.’

What's your favourite part of controlling the Thames Barrier?

‘The satisfaction of doing something that’s worthwhile and that means London can carry on as normal without being concerned about tidal flooding. I always say it would be quite career-limiting if the prime minister was standing in the House of Commons in his wellies because we’d let a flood through that we shouldn’t have. That just would not be acceptable.’

Hour: 37 per week
Starting salary: £25,000-£30,000 pa
Qualifications: Engineering experience

Or why not become a street food seller?

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