Aye, aye, captain.
You don’t have to be a pirate to know that safety lock and dam operators have the pleasure of monitoring the nation’s most precious treasure; delicate blue waterways.
The communications team got an inside look into the day-to-day operations from W.P. Franklin lock operator Glenn Hutson. Originally from Canada, Hutson has been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 13 years. “As far as the job goes, I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said.
Jacksonville District defines a lock operator as someone who has sole authority of dam gates, control valves, and other equipment required for private and commercial traffic to lock through navigable waterways.
The USACE navigation mission is to provide safe, reliable, efficient, effective, and environmentally sustainable waterborne transportation systems for the movement of commerce, national security needs, and recreation.
Hutson’s fascination with the great outdoors began as a young boy who received animal books on subjects such as diamondback rattlesnakes from his grandmother.
Before working at W.P. Franklin, Hutson started locking at Ortona, Julian Keen, and a couple of months at Port Mayaca. Notably, the district operates two other locks, St. Lucie and Canaveral Locks, for a total of six locks.
Fast forward to the present, Huston’s day begins on the sunny-side as his shift starts at 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m, with the last lockage at 4:30 p.m. in Alva, Fla., on the Caloosahatchee River.
Hutson’s office is a control room with expansive windows overlooking the river. Inside is digital technology, a restroom, refrigerator, and microwave.
“In the morning, you do your morning report where you [state] how many lockages you had if there’s any algae, how much rain you had on the [spillway],” said Hutson.
Furthermore, he discussed the opening and closing of gates through a traffic signal in which a green light signals boaters to enter after the water goes down.
When a boater is seeking access entry, they usually call the lock operator.
Then the operator usually requests for the captain to wait for the green signal to come in along with the mandatory wearing of properly sized life jackets.
Additionally, the operator grabs rope for the head and tail of the boat to stay in a halted position with the boat engine turned off. Approximately 20 to 30 minutes later, boaters are on their way. Lock operators are superior multi-taskers.
Responsibilities of a lock operator include monitoring the spillway, ensuring the safety of patrons using the recreation area on land and water, and providing quality customer service to impolite boaters.
When asked how lock operators keep their eyes on everything, Huston said, “It comes with experience. You have to keep your eye on the river level, the boaters out at each end. Of course, we are not letting a lot of water out, but if you are not paying attention behind that gate, you would not see them.”
He reemphasized paying attention to those boaters at each side and making sure you don’t have any accidents. He recalls specifically when 22 boaters were in the chamber all at once.
For example, a tugboat with two barges could barely fit into the estimated 400-feet long chamber.
More than 100 boats have come in and out of the lake in east and west directions on a daily average.
Generally, three operators are stationed at each lock who work independent shifts manning and operating the lock.
However, there are times when operators at other locks provide an all-hands approach, like for pulse releases.
“When we are doing a pulse release, I have to have my gate set so that a certain amount of water goes through. If I run out of water or if I get too much water, I’ll call Jennifer [at Ortona Lock], and she will either open more gates or slow down the water; it's them that keep us at the right level,” he said.
At the fingertips of the operator are a ton of tools and equipment. After the rain, water levels rise, making the river higher, and in that event, gates must be opened. W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam has eight gates.
“We try to set those gates so that no one will have to come here in the middle of the night. Now, if that happens, there is a computer system known as the SUTRON that has the capability of phoning somebody if the river gets to 265 and 355,” said Hutson.
The SUTRON is a computer that reads the lake levels at the head and tail and determines sea level rise and fall.
The Manatee Positioning System helps determine the sea level and pressure for the gates that move the sector gates on each side.
Although, mission-essential lock operators work tirelessly all year, including holidays and inclement weather such as catastrophic hurricanes.
When disaster strikes, operators work 12 hour days in a full-team approach. Additionally, lock operators also issue a safety policy, including all passengers on boats must wear a lifejacket.
A trifold brochure is handed to all boaters to ensure they are aware of lockage protocol, something so simple as calling the lock operator is not always done.
William Keeney, USACE lock supervisor, said there are five operators on the waterways standing there alone making decisions.
“They are liable for everything on here,” said Keeney.
Hutson, who celebrated his birthday in March, will retire this July.
For more information on locking and safety tips as a boater, visit https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Navigation/Notices-to-Navigation/Notice-to-Navigation-2019-001-Guidance-about-Canaveral-and-Okeechobee-Waterway-Lock-procedures/.