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.
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 1.
"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.
Inside the 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, set the crane's "spreader" and "flippers," and haul a 40-foot container from a ship to a waiting truck, or vice versa.
In the case of a dropped container or other accident, cracks appear all over the simulated windows: game over.
Crane operators are linchpin workers for the port. The speed of their work 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, 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.
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 union official Michael Coe.