On Wednesday, many federal, state, and local public safety agencies conducted an exercise in the Inner Harbor. It aimed to prepare emergency responders for a rescue incident. (Kim Hairston and Matt Bylis/Baltimore Sun Video)

The voice of the water taxi operator off Canton came over the radio Wednesday morning.

"We're taking on water," he said. "I think sinking or capsizing is imminent."

Emergency responders listening to their radios at a nearby pier immediately shifted into gear, readying themselves for the start of a mock exercise rescuing dozens of overboard victims in the Inner Harbor.

The energy was apparent, if somewhat awkward.

"You want to try to do good on these things," said Skip Minter, a longtime boat pilot for the Baltimore Fire Department, whose job was to maneuver out to the training scene — dozens of life jackets strewn about in the water — and return the "victims" back to shore.

Responding to real-life emergencies on Baltimore's waters is "like breathing" after decades on the job, Minter said, but exercises are still important — in part because they are designed to throw people off their rhythms.

"If everything goes smoothly, you didn't plan a great exercise," said C.P. Hsia of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, which coordinated the drill. "We throw a few curveballs."

The exercise was the largest of its kind ever to be held in Baltimore, bringing the city fire and police departments together with Maryland Natural Resources Police, the Coast Guard and the Navy. The goal, Hsia said, was to assess response capabilities and spot any problems with communication and coordination between the various agencies during a major water emergency.

The event was the brainchild of Michael McDaniel, president and CEO of Baltimore Water Taxi, the company that ferries commuters and visitors around the harbor.

McDaniel said he had the concept of "operational risk management" ingrained in his head during his time in the Marine Corps, and wanted to prepare for potential problems beyond the "man overboard and fire drills" his company routinely conducts.

"We're constantly doing drills, but we do it in-house, so it's great to have other resources participate," he said of Wednesday's full-scale exercise. "If we had a mass casualty event, all these agencies would be players."

Hsia said his office jumped at the idea of a collaborative exercise when McDaniel raised it, as it dovetailed with other regional trainings the office has held with neighboring counties and institutions, such as mass casualties coming in to major hospitals or fires in high-rise buildings.

"We want to practice for things that might happen, but don't happen a lot," said Hsia, calling them "high-impact, low probability" events.

The last major water disaster in Baltimore occurred in 2004, when the pontoon water taxi Lady D capsized during a sudden storm, killing five people and spurring questions about emergency preparedness on the waterfront.

On Wednesday, the radio chirped with directions and requests as Minter maneuvered his boat with a steady hand and his partner, Mark Fida, pulled life jackets aboard.

"Nice and easy," Fida said.

After the exercise, all the participants gathered back on shore to fill out questionnaires and share thoughts with officials — off the record — about what went well and what went wrong.

Officials did not disclose what "curveballs" they included in the drill, but one point of confusion was the number of victims who were supposed to be in the water. Two different numbers were reported over the radio — were there 51 or 45? — and the discrepancy was mentioned by several participants before the exercise was concluded.

Hsia said all of the information will be compiled in an after-action report in coming weeks, which in turn will be used to tweak response protocols.

More exercises on the water will be held in the future, he said.

krector@baltsun.com

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