Port safety in Canada: Could Baltimore happen here?

by Victoria Jones
Victoria Jones is a supply chain specialist at Tyers Foods.

With the recent Baltimore Key Bridge catastrophe that the world watched unfold, one wonders how our ports in Canada are preparing for and preventing incidents of this magnitude in our own waters.

“We always have to be prepared,” said Port Saint John (PSJ) CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks. Port Saint John has invested a quarter of a billion dollars into their infrastructure surrounding risk and disruption over the last year, focusing on implementing a risk and compliance committee, as well as changing discourse and talking more about risk. Port Authorities in Canada operate under the arm of Transport Canada and the Canada Marine Act but operate independently across the 17 port authorities. “From a landside perspective we need to account for physical, cyber and infrastructure security,” Estabrooks explained.

Part of the risk overhaul that Port Saint John has been implementing includes a number of people with new skill sets such as the former chief of police who is now the vice-president of risk and compliance for PSJ. Estabrooks explains that while there is always the possibility of a disaster or unknown event, the ships in PSJ do not go anywhere near the Saint John Harbour Bridge, a three-span crossing of Saint John Harbour at the mouth of the Saint John River.

“In my time in this role I have seen nothing like the Baltimore bridge disaster. You will have the odd scenario where a vessel hits a pier or another ship but nothing like this. To see the bridge collapse was unprecedented,” Estabrooks said.

Over the past 10 years, risk plans, heat maps and emergency response plans have been put in place at most Canadian ports to prevent and respond to situations similar to what we saw in Baltimore said Anne Waldes, board chair for the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority. A heatmap is used to show relationships between two variables plotted on each axis. This takes into consideration the planning of processes and systems and translates that into a guideline which tells you your risk levels.

“Once you have your heat map and your risk level from one to five you go through and plan emergency responses and what-if scenarios. In a heat map you have your knowns or possible risks. And you also have your unknown unknowns, which are risks like a hurricane, or like the ship running into the Baltimore bridge, those things usually don’t happen, and you just can’t predict them. They are also the most difficult to predict because you just don’t know what you don’t know,” said Waldes.

An essential part of the port response plan would also include a control tower, Waldes says there are multiple factors and groups in a crisis response situation using their own heat maps, sometimes they can be redundant and sometimes they can be essential and someone has to be the control tower operating it all smoothly.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are organizations entrusted with the investigation of transportation accidents to decipher their underlying causes and offer recommendations for safety enhancements. Both the Canadian and American governments rely extensively on their expertise to formulate regulations and uphold safety standards across diverse modes of transportation, including air, sea, rail, and pipelines, according to Brett Gustavsen, who is a logistics advisor with Rite Route Supply Chain Solutions and a former marine policy analyst for Transport Canada.

“As large commercial vessels approach ports, it is customary for the ship’s captain to yield control to a licensed pilot. These pilots are selected for their knowledge of local waterways, encompassing intricate details such as narrow passages, shallow areas, and prevailing currents,” Gustavsen said.

“Their expertise lies in maneuvering ships through confined spaces, ensuring not only safe but also efficient passage, thereby safeguarding the interests of individuals, the economy, and the environment.”

Canada is currently in the midst of implementing marine safety management systems onto vessels of this type for situations such as power failure which we saw in the striking of the Baltimore bridge.

Safety in harbours across North America has greatly progressed over the last 25 years with new technological advances, communication methods and standard operating procedures. It is because of these innovations that the vessel that hit the Baltimore Key Bridge was able to provide advanced warning and avoid even further devastation.

Of the 241 Canadian marine accidents reported in 2022, The Transportation Safety Board reported that the most frequent shipping accidents were caused by collision (32 per cent), grounding (25 per cent) and fire and explosion (17 per cent). Marine regulations and advancements will only get stronger as we to learn from tragedies like what we witnessed in Baltimore and Gustavsen leaves us with this important realization, “At the end of the day, vessels and structures can be replaced, people cannot.”