Veracruz Training Wrap-up

At 7:15 our little band stood in the lobby of the Hotel Louis rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and filing into the van of the “Proteccion Civil” (Mexican equivalent of Emergency Operations). By 7:45 we were in the auditorium provided to us as a classroom for the 60 students of the lifeguard academy.

It was the last full day in Veracruz. The culmination of 60 hours of training over a 6 day period. We were tired to the bone after all the teaching and mandatory extracurricular activities that were required of us by Mexican customs and the formalities required of a delegation from Veracruz’s sister city.

From the written test we went directly to the beach and the large group was quickly divided into a subset of 4. Smaller groups of around 15 participated in 4 separate scenarios on the beach. Two were simulated medical emergencies that were designed to happen on the shoreline and the other two were water emergencies, which were complicated by the 8 foot surf. By 11:30, thanks to the help from some additional volunteers, we’d run the scenarios and done a debriefing to talk about the good and bad responses to the simulated emergencies. After the daily mandatory group photo shots and autograph sessions protocol dictated, we ate a hasty meal that our host brought us. Then we and reunited with a couple of members of our group who were assigned the arduous task of grading the 60 exams and putting the scores in the course matrix alongside the swim, run, attendance, teamwork, and first aid/CPR course columns. To receive certification from the International Lifesaving Federation- Americas Region they had to pass all of the columns. 26 ended up passing and the others received an acknowledgement of participation in the course, and in some cases a certification in first aid and CPR.

The completion ceremony filled the municipal hall of Veracruz and there were high ranking officials present from the mayor to an admiral in the Navy to the heads of both tourism and civil protection for the state. The mayor is the son of the mayor that was there when Galveston and Veracruz formed their sister city relationship, and that relationship is clearly very important to the entire city. We were treated like royalty by everyone we came into contact with.

We actually got two glorious hours off to change, rest and prepare for the big celebration. At the celebration we distributed second had buoys, whistles, fins, lifeguard competition shirts, Galveston stickers and other things we brought to donate. Nothing goes to waste down there.

Hopefully the training will come in handy to the 14 groups from all over the state in the upcoming couple of weeks. Carnival starts today and they expect around 2 million people to visit the city alone in the next week. Semana Santa (Easter) follows shortly after and it just as big. They’ll definitely have their hands full.

Our crew returned Sunday exhausted but with renewed commitment. Our own challenges start shortly.

Learnings in Veracruz

Greetings from Veracruz, Mexico! Our sister city is booming and everyone from the Mayor to the taxi driver says to tell everyone in Galveston hello. When we started the relationship between the lifeguard programs and held the first Veracruz/Boca Del Rio academy in 1999, we never dreamed that the relationship would be as successful as its been.

Mexican politics have influenced the program quite a bit. Elections changed the political party and the lifeguard program was cut to 8 guards in Boca Del Rio and 8 in Veracruz. At one point they had 32 and 26 respectively so that’s quite a change. Numbers of drownings seem to fluctuate depending on you talk to but it sounds like there were actually 42 drownings in Boca Del Rio alone last year. That’s after a year and a half with no drownings before the program was reduced. I guess if we need evidence that properly trained lifeguards actually do keep people from dying in the beach this would demonstrate that pretty clearly.

Interesting story from the head of Civil Protection from the years with little or no drownings. A new mayor was elected and was getting some complaints from citizens who were annoyed that they went for a swim and the lifeguards whistled at them and told them to stay closer to the shore. He called the Civil Protection Director and said, “Why are you bothering the citizens? Let them have fun! Stop telling them what to do and just help them if they get in trouble” After some discussion, the mayor’s directive didn’t change, so the director called his troupes on the radio and told them to do what the mayor ordered. Literally 15 minutes later the first drowning occurred and there were many after that.

This story is known by pretty much anyone in Civil Protection or Lifesaving in the area. We used it to emphasize the most important principle of lifeguarding to the 60 lifeguard candidates in the course we’re teaching down here. Prevention is the most important concept for beach lifeguards. If you can prevent accidents before they happen, the potential victim and the lifeguard never have to risk their lives because the rescue never happens. With enough prevention and public education, places like Galveston and Veracruz can average 4-6 drowning deaths a year instead of 42.

Tomorrow we wrap this course up. We will have trained lifeguards and first responders from Veracruz, Boca Del Rio, Tuxpan, Cazones, Nautla, Alto Lucero, Ursulo Galvan, Alvarado, Coatzalcoalcos, San Andres Tuxtla, as well as the Federal Police, the Mexican Navy, and the state health department. We’ve worked really, really hard but have been rewarded with an experience that not only deepens our understanding of Latino culture, but helps us become better lifeguards and water safety educators.

Hopefully the course will re-invigorate their lifesaving programs and reduce the amount of preventable deaths in the beaches in the state. That’s up to them, but we return with sharpened skills and renewed dedication to keeping our own beach as safe as we can.

Veracruz Academy

22 years ago Vic Maceo and I joined a group from Galveston who went down to our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico in a delegation from Galveston. We went during Carnival, which in Veracruz is a really big deal. Veracruz is a huge tourist destination and during holidays it seems like all of Mexico City is there for the party. While there we noticed a lifeguard tower and went up to talk to the guard. That conversation sparked something that has been of great value for both Veracruz and Galveston.

At that time they had just started a lifeguard program in response to a rash of beachfront drownings. In its second year it hadn’t yet seen much success. Underfunding and understaffing issues were compounded by the fact that there is no lifeguarding program anywhere near Veracruz. There was no one to teach them how to be lifeguards or how to manage a lifeguarding program. Under the new management of a dynamic leader named Julian Flores Cabrera, who served as the Civil Protection Coordinator, they had made positive steps. Julian hired fishermen’s kids who had a good grasp of the water issues and could swim as opposed to the traditional method of putting the kids of local politicians in there. They also used information from a show that was popular at the time, “Guardianes de la Bahia”. That’s right- they used “Baywatch” to help train themselves to be lifeguards! Although they’d made a start, they still saw 27 to 30 drownings a year on their busy beaches.

We worked with Julian and within a couple of years we were co-teaching the classes and they were running regular lifeguard academies in our absence. We’ve now trained hundreds of guards including some military personnel that help out during the busy times. Once we even ran a surf rescue course for the Mexican equivalent of the Navy Seals. Most importantly the average drownings per year dropped from near 20 to about 4, which worked wonders for their ability to attract tourists and market the destination to a wider range of people.

Once they were self sustaining we stopped going down, although we stay in close contact with our sister agency. Apparently in recent years the program has deteriorated as a result of local politics and changing priorities. In Mexico it’s not uncommon after elections for a person from a new political party to takes office and fire everyone, making them reapply for their jobs. Last year there were almost 30 drownings which has caused a public outcry and the local politicians, public safety, and tourism officials are suddenly very concerned about the state of their lifeguarding program and the subsequent ability to market themselves as a beach destination. Once again the iron is hot.

So, as a result of a call from my old friend Julian, tomorrow morning I leave with a group of vacationing volunteer lifeguards using funding from Veracruz to run a week long lifeguard academy and meet with officials and community groups.