From a climate zone away, Crowley dispatchers oversee tugs in California

Jay Martin, a tug dispatcher for Crowley, gazed at his computer monitor, tracking the movement of vessels in the nation’s busiest port complex, Los Angeles/Long Beach in Southern California.

Martin’s job is to make sure the four tugboats operated by his company in Los Angeles/Long Beach are at the right place at the right time. His computer displays in real time the positions of the tugs, ships, pilot boats and other commercial vessels as they move about the bustling port.

He pointed out to a visitor the icon of the Crowley escort tug Admiral as it headed west toward the breakwater that protects the entrances to the port. “It’s on its way to meet Romoe Maersk,” he explained, a tanker waiting at an anchorage for a berth to open up.

At that moment another tanker, Capt. H.A. Donovan, occupied the berth in question. The computer display showed two other tugs, Morgan Foss and Pacific Combi, standing by and ready to assist Donovan away from its berth. The two tugs are owned by competitors, but Martin would be working closely with them so that the two tankers could swap places as efficiently and as safely as possible.

“This is what they call a coordinated move,” Martin said.

This ship-assist job would be just one of the more than 8,500 that Crowley performs in Southern California annually. Nothing remarkable about it, except perhaps for the fact that Martin was overseeing it from the Crowley dispatch center at its offices on Elliott Bay in Seattle, approximately 1,000 miles north of San Pedro Bay.

Crowley has been dispatching its tugs in Southern California from its Seattle office since the fall of 2003. This approach is made possible by combining a variety of telecommunications and computer technologies. At the heart of the system is a dispatching software program that Crowley developed in house.

Using VHF radios, cell phones and landlines, Martin and his fellow dispatchers are able to monitor local radio traffic and communicate with the crews of Crowley’s four assist tugs in Southern California. The AIS data provided by the Maritime Exchange of Southern California allows them to track vessels with great precision. The in-house software allows them to administer the workload in a fast-moving setting that requires rapid decision-making, and accurate and timely record keeping.

Martin said the system works so well, others cannot tell he is actually far to the north. Through the radios, he can hear the same transmissions they do. And through the AIS data, he can see the same vessel movements.

“They forget I am in Seattle because everything is just clicking along,” he said. It takes a discussion of the weather to make folks realize the dispatcher is based in an entirely different climate zone. “They will say it’s nice out and I will say it’s raining.”

Scott Hoggarth is Crowley’s manager of Harbor Services. A dispatcher for 14 year himself, he was managing the dispatch operation when the new system was planned and implemented. He recalls that when the decision was made to centralize the dispatching operation, there were questions about whether customers would accept the new approach. “There were concerns how customers would receive it,” Hoggarth said. However, when the system went into place and people could see for themselves, there was “almost zero pushback,” said Hoggarth. “A number of companies used the word ‘seamless.’ They couldn’t tell they were talking to a dispatcher in Seattle.”

Crucial to success was the efficient flow of information. Obviously, the dispatchers had to be able to communicate effectively with the tugboat crews to give them their instructions. Surprisingly, much of that communication is effected by non-nautical means — by cell phone. “The most basic tool is our cell phones,” Hoggarth said. “L.A./Long Beach has full coverage with no holes.”

In Southern California, ships requiring the service of pilots are only required to give two hours’ notice (compared with 24 hours’ in Puget Sound). Given the short reaction times, the dispatchers have to have up-to-the-minute information on when and where the pilots are to meet a ship that is about to enter or exit the harbor. For that information, the Seattle dispatchers monitor the VHF radio transmissions of the pilots and their pilot boats.

“We listen to the pilot and the boatmen: ‘When are you going to be ready for a ride?'” Hoggarth explained. “This allows us to plan without calling and bothering our tugs when they’re working.”

For similar reasons, the dispatchers also need to monitor the Marine Exchange’s channel and Crowley’s own house channel that the tugs use to communicate with each other.

Crowley has adapted audio software and a piece of hardware known simply as “the box” that captures these transmissions and feeds them into the company’s intranet. The result is that the dispatchers, who are well out of VHF range, can still monitor the radio traffic as though they were sitting in an office overlooking San Pedro Bay.

The management software used by Crowley allows the dispatchers to simply click on a box when a job is done. That act automatically generates an invoice.

“We do a job today, there’s a bill sent out the next day,” Hoggarth said. “That’s the name of the game — cash flow.”

Crowley said its system makes its dispatchers and its tugboats more efficient. That’s good for Crowley, but it is also good for Crowley’s customers.

“The goal is to get ships to move when they want to move,” Hoggarth said.

By Professional Mariner Staff