By Colin Campbell
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — The recent surge of container traffic at the port of Baltimore’s piers has caused congestion on the docks, most notably for truckers, who often spend hours waiting for their cargo in long lines on Broening Highway.
Training more longshoremen to operate the towering 140-foot container cranes and other equipment is key to making Seagirt Marine Terminal more efficient, but with ships calling the port on all but a few days this year, training requires waiting for an available crane or slowing operations while the worker learns.
So the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents port employers including Ports America Chesapeake, the company that runs the state-owned container terminal, bought a $500,000 simulator this year to train crane operators in various conditions without affecting the day-to-day loading and unloading of cargo.
“Everything is ‘turn time’ in production with vessels when they come into the port,” said David Hartman, vice president of the Steamship Trade Association. “It’s getting that vessel loaded and unloaded safely, efficiently, and on its way. To train takes time.”
Container crane trainees now spend their first two weeks of their needed 400 hours of training on the simulator, which looks, feels and moves like a crane operator’s cabin. That lets them acclimate to the controls in a safe environment before trying their hands at the real thing during week three _ rather than on day one.
“When he gets up in that crane (to train) with a veteran crane operator, he’s not killing so much time learning the basics,” Hartman said. “He’s learned the basics right here. And that veteran crane operator can help expedite his training and do it safely, more importantly.”
The GlobalSim Full Mission System simulator, which was installed at the nearby Point Breeze Business Center in March, is expected to reduce the length of the monthslong training program to as short as six weeks, said Charles “Buck” Lynch, the Steamship Trade Association’s safety and training manager.
That’s mostly because trainees won’t have to wait to learn the basics on available cranes, which often require maintenance on their rare days off.
“Seagirt’s a busy place,” Lynch said. “The port of Baltimore’s a very busy place.”
“The majority of the problem is because it’s too busy _ we cannot get a crane for training,” he said. “This way, we have a simulation of a crane available seven days a week.”
Inside the mostly enclosed cab, seven high-definition, flat-panel screens, including one on the floor, take the place of crane windows, surrounding the trainee and simulating the operator’s eagle’s-eye view of a container ship and the docks below.
From an instructor’s computer nearby, Lynch can create different scenarios on the simulator. He can make the water choppy or calm, raise or lower the height of the tide, adjust wind speed and gusts, change the time of day and visibility _ and even trip up some of the crane controls so they don’t work properly every time. Glitches happen with the real-life equipment, after all.
“Whoever’s in the seat, it keeps them on their toes if they don’t know what’s coming,” he said.
Antwon Lemon, an 18-year Baltimore longshoreman receiving training on a recent afternoon, said it mirrors the real thing.
Lemon, 38, demonstrated how to turn on the controls, correctly set the crane’s “spreader” and “flippers,” and haul a 40-foot container from a ship to a waiting truck, or vice versa. The simulator rumbled as the crane lifted and lowered the box, which swayed in the wind and with the movements of the crane.
In the case of a dropped container or other accident, cracks appear all over the simulated windows: game over.
“It gives you a really realistic idea of what you’re getting yourself into on the job,” he said. “You can drive without the fear of hurting anybody.”
Crane operators are linchpin workers for the port. The speed they work at can dictate how long a vessel remains in port, or its turn time. Operators are measured by how many of the truck-sized shipping containers they can lift on and off a ship in an hour.
And Baltimore’s operators are good, moving as many as 40 containers per hour. The port has earned repeated recognition as one of the nation’s most efficient ports from the industry news site Journal of Commerce, moving an average of 71 containers an hour per berth served by two cranes.
That efficiency has helped make Baltimore a cargo destination again amid a surge in shipments coming to the East Coast from Asia after the opening of the expanded Panama Canal. Ports America acquired four giant container cranes to handle the largest ships coming through the canal and other yard cranes to move the containers around Seagirt.
And, while a good crane operator is critical, they must collaborate effectively with the work gangs and checkers below or their efficiency would go for naught.
GlobalSim’s Full Mission System simulator, which can also imitate rubber-tired gantry cranes, the spider-like wheeled cranes that lift, move and stack containers on the port, and the gear cranes on ships, is the Utah software company’s most popular and “without a doubt one of the premiere, high-definition simulators available on the market today,” according to the manufacturer’s website.
“Port authorities, universities, corporations, and other agencies throughout the world currently use our Full Mission platform as an integral part of their training _ the platform is lauded for its exceptional realism,” GlobalSim’s website says.
The simulator “helps the vessel, it helps the manpower in the local, the longshoremen themselves, and then also the truckers,” Hartman said.
It will give more longshoremen a chance to work as crane operators, one of the most prestigious and highest-paying jobs on the docks, said Michael Coe, vice president and training co-chair of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, which represents Baltimore dockworkers.
“With this program, we’re hoping to have more people trained this year than we have in the last 20 years,” Coe said.