What If

In this line of work saying “What If?” can be dangerous. Would this bad thing had happened if we had or hadn’t……? It’s better to use all the data and statistics you have coupled with what your team’s cumulative experience is. Sprinkle in what your gut tells you and shake it up- then decide a course of action. Once you’ve made the call its best to not torment yourself with second guesses.

This past weekend could have been full of those moments if any of us had time for introspection. At one point we had three calls working almost simultaneously on Monday. A jet ski floating around in the bay with no owner, an unconscious man at Stewart Beach that had been in the water, and a possible drowning at East Beach stretched our resources to the limit. Fortunately all ended well for those situations but it really made us appreciate our partner agencies who were there with us for these three events and for many others throughout the weekend. We really can’t say thank you enough for the CERT Team (Strike Team #1) whose public safety volunteers helped to move several hundred people out of the waters of the San Luis Pass, Galveston Fire/EMS/Police and Park Board Security and Park Staff who were there at every major event, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network who offered free counseling to lifeguards who gave CPR to a submerged man, and to our amazing National Weather Service Houston/Galveston office who kept us up on the latest weather all the way through the weekend. It’s good to have partners and friends who are there when you need them most.

Mostly though I’d like to thank my staff who did an unbelievable job protecting hundreds of thousands of tourists in unbelievably rough water, blasting wind, and the most adverse conditions imaginable. Many worked longer hours and extra shifts when it became obvious that this was an exceptionally challenging and dangerous situation. By the end of the weekend they’d moved over 3,000 people away from rip currents and closer to shore, made rescues, reunited lost kids, treated medical emergencies, enforced rules, and offered water safety and tourist information to hundreds.

I’d like to finish by doing what I said I shouldn’t and asking two big “What ifs?”

The first is what if Supervisor Kris Pompa and several others on our staff hadn’t taken my early spring challenge to provide water safety talks to at least 8,000 kids in the Houston/Galveston area? Kris was on the road for over two months sometimes hitting as many as three schools a day. By May 1st he’d exceeded all expectations by providing beach water safety instruction to 16, 761 students! Each of them spread that info to families and friends. We’ll never know how many accidents will never happen as a result.

Finally, what if Galveston and the Galveston Park Board didn’t provide us the resources to staff those towers, trucks, and boats?

What if?

Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.

Beaches and Risk

Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatamala. It was really steep and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars so no one collapsed on the way up.

We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. Plastic bags can suffocate you. Apple filling is hot.

All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk, but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, child proof caps, security checks, health codes, etc.

It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.

Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering the ocean is something that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 300 safety signs up and down the beach. And we have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But, ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.

There was a terrible, terrible tragedy last Saturday night. It was extremely rough and we held the guards late due to the abnormally large surf, strong currents, and crowds. The lifeguard at 24th called in that there was a swimmer out too far. The swimmer was past the waist deep we recommend for red flag days, but he was neither past the legal swimming limit nor was he in between the “no swimming” signs and the rock groin. And he was not struggling. The man did nothing wrong and our guard not only did nothing wrong, but was being more proactive than could be expected. But the man slipped underwater within just a few seconds without warning and died.

My heart goes out to both the family and our staff who are struggling to come to terms with this.

NOAA Conference

Rip currents, which typically pull people perpendicular from shore, are the cause of 80% of drowning death in beaches both in and outside of the USA. In Galveston, we are lucky because rip currents mostly occur right next to the rock groins. That’s why we have signs and ropes near the rocks and why we place the lifeguard towers near that area. Each year we move around 60,000 people from dangerous areas, the majority of which are near those rocks.

Since the water carries you out but nothing pulls you under, there are some clear ways to get yourself out of a rip current. If you relax and float the current will usually pull you out to the end of the groin then back around to the shore. If possible you can call or wave for help. If you are a good swimmer you can try swimming parallel to the shore and if you are able to clear the area with the rip current it is easy to get back to shore. If you see someone in a rip current you should never go after them unless you have proper equipment and training. Instead try throwing something that floats connected to a rope, like the ring-buoys and throw bags we have in the rescue stations on the end of each groin. Or if they’re close you can extend an object (towel, stick, fishing pole) to them and pull them up.

For about a decade I’ve been involved, as a representative from the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), with a group that developed a body of information to educate the public about the dangers of rip currents. This group includes the USLA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically the National Weather Service (NWS) and Sea Grant. Over the past couple of years another group has been meeting to design a pilot project where lifeguard agencies are partnered with their local NWS office and give feedback on how accurate the new science of rip current predictions on specific beaches. This partnership between the NWS and USLA agencies has grown to about 25 groups and, after an evaluation period will likely expand throughout our nation’s beaches

Last week the NWS had a conference in Virginia. NOAA brought another USLA representative and I up to a “Coastal Resiliency Workshop” where over 100 researchers and weather forecasters spent three days together listening to presentations and dialoguing in workshops about the best ways to protect our nations beach going population from rip currents in a consistent and proactive manner. Both of the USLA presentations were really well received and it was encouraging to see this marriage between theoretical science and practical applications take shape. As lifeguards our primary mission in protecting people from the dangers of rip currents and other beach and ocean hazards. Being able to provide on the ground data that will eventually lead to accurate rip current predictive models is a real privilege, as it will ultimately lead to lives saved.

 

Image by: Invertzoo

Dune Planting with Artist Boat

Help Artist Boat restore a dune destroyed by Ike this weekend! They’re looking for volunteers who would like to participate in our dune planting events this Saturday, February 21st, from 9:45 AM-2:30 PM and Sunday, February 22nd, from 12:45-5:30 PM. Please contact Nate Johnson at (409) 770-0722 or at njohnson@artistboat.org to register for an event!

Dune Planting2

A Small Thing

It was a small, but deeply meaningful thing.

The other morning it was cold, windy, rainy and overcast, but there were some nice little waves breaking. It was early as I grabbed my board and paddled out at 37th street.

As I used the rip current to paddle out, I noticed our rescue buoy box was open and the ring buoy was laying on the rocks with the rope spread out all over. These boxes are invaluable and we document at least 15 rescues a season by fishermen or bystanders who throw the ring buoy out to a person in distress without having to endanger themselves by going in the water after the victim. I made a mental note that when I finished I would pick up the buoy, stuff the rope back in its throw bag, stick it back in the box, and latch it closed so it would be ready if someone needed it.

After awhile a couple of other guards joined me before their shift. Between sets of waves we chatted about how cold it was. It was in the 40s with a strong north east wind and drizzling. Pretty miserable.

We saw our “on call” unit coming down the seawall and stop to put out the condition advisory flag on the sign up on the seawall at 37th street. The “on call” unit is the person and vehicle assigned to answer any 911 calls during the night. We rotate this job each night so anytime during the year, day or night, we are available to help if a water emergency comes up. Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale was finishing up his on call shift by putting out the daily flags. It was so cold and miserable that we all decided that Josh would either not notice the buoy on the rocks or would act like he didn’t see it. We realized we were wrong when we saw Josh trudge out through the rain and wind wearing his big red coat. He carefully put the rope back in the bag and set the whole thing back in the box, waved at us, and walked back to his truck and drove down the beach.

I later found out that this was not for show. Every day when Josh puts the flags out he double checks each of the buoy boxes and makes sure they are stocked and ready to go. Josh, like most of the Beach Patrol lifeguards has seen enough of what can go wrong to be motivated to do whatever he can to keep bad things from happening. He doesn’t do it to please me or anyone else. He goes the extra mile because he believes in what we do and knows little proactive actions like this save lives.

Josh is not alone. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many others who do thousands of unrewarded, quiet actions to keep organization running well. The combined result of these small things keep thousands from injury or death each year.

Aloha Doc

As a wide eyed 16 year old surfer, I made my first pilgrimage to the west coast in 1980. I flew into LAX and hitchhiked down the California coast while camping, absorbing the west coast lifestyle of the day, and surfing at all the famous spots I’d read about in the magazines. During that trip I was fortunate (or destined) to meet one of the biggest heroes in lifesaving, surfing, and Galveston history.

I was sitting on the beach at San Onofre after surfing the morning at Trestles, which is just south of San Clemente. An older man came up and started talking to me. Normally while traveling alone you’d be a little wary about strangers but there was something in this guy’s demeanor that caused me to instantly trust him. He was soft spoken and unassuming but had a real presence. We fell into an easy conversation, and he was excited that I was from Galveston like him. He invited me to eat with his family. Turns out, his family was huge and ran a surf school right there on the beach, where they seemed to be permanently camping. One was nicer than the other, and only later would I realize I was meeting a whole tribe of living legends. The surf school was the world renowned Paskowitz Surfing Camp.

Surfing, Lifesaving, and Galveston lost one of its greatest legends recently with the passing of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who was the elderly gentleman who’d sensed my loneliness and been so kind to me.

Born the son of Russian and Jewish immigrants on March 1921 right here in Galveston, Doc rode his first wave at age 12 and never stopped surfing throughout his long life. As a young teen he moved to San Diego where he worked as a lifeguard at Mission Beach. In 1946 he graduated at Stanford Medical School and eventually made his way to Israel with the mission of trying to get “Jews and Arabs to surf together”. Kelly Slater, who is touted as the greatest surfer to ever live, said that Doc “…believed that those who surfed together could live together peacefully”.

After coming back to California he practiced what many believe is the true spirit of surfing and lived with his wife and all nine of his kids in a large surf van for many years. He was a big believer in a healthy lifestyle and touted that throughout his medical career and his commitment to the traditional surfers’ lifestyle of living simply, exercising regularly, and eating well. He once said that “Health is a presence of a superior state of wellbeing, a vigor, a vitality, a pizzazz you have to work for every single day of your life.” He put belief into practice by founding the Paskowitz International Surf School, the Paskowitz surfing Psychiatric Clinic, the Paskowitz Surfing Camp and Surfing for Peace.

“It is easier to die when you have lived than it is to die when you haven’t” – Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz

 

 

Labor Day Advisory

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been several rescues that we’ve had to make by the rock jetties despite our best efforts to keep people far enough away to avoid trouble. There have also been a couple of incidents involving young children in area pools that nearly drowned and two men drowned in the San Luis Pass area while boating from the Brazoria County side. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment or seconds of inattention for things to break bad.

But is doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water remember to take a minute to be aware of your surroundings and potential risk. You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers  and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it. See you on the beach!

Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?

Drowning Prevention for the City of Galveston

Swimming Safety- English

Swimming Safety- Spanish

 

For a downloadable version of the brochure, click here.