Lightning

The lone lifeguard stood on Stewart Beach. The air was thick as a dark, green frontal system moved in from the north.  In the distance lifeguard trucks drove up and down the beach using their loudspeakers to let people know lightning was moving into the area. Bolts of lightning struck nearby.  The lifeguard whistled at the few remaining people in the area and yelled for them to get out of the water. Suddenly, time stood still and the air crackled with electricity. He realized he was lying on his back. A filling in his mouth hurt, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he felt as if insects were running across his temples.

With fall quickly approaching we’ll soon start to see regular frontal systems that bring lightning into the area more frequently. This incident, which happened years ago, is a real reminder that lifeguards and other public safety professionals are not immune to the very dangers they work to protect people from. It is also not very likely to happen again because as our understanding of the lightning processes has improved, we’ve restructured our protocols to minimize danger to our staff by pulling tower guards immediately while we notify the public from our vehicles, and new technology is currently being used to reduce risk to both our staff and to the beach going public.

Lightning most frequently occurs within 10 miles of a thunderstorm, so it is generally recommended that people take shelter when lightning comes within this distance. One way to tell how close lightning is involves counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the corresponding thunder roar. This is known as the “flash to bang rule”. Every five seconds is a mile, so if the time between the flash and the bang is less than 50 seconds, you want to clear out. There are also apps, websites, and devices that let you know how close lightning is to you. At Beach Patrol, we pay an annual fee for a program that not only alerts us when lightning moves within a certain distance, but can predict when this may happen.

It’s not enough to seek shelter in a building. It has to be fully enclosed, grounded, and have electrical and plumbing. Boats aren’t really safe at all, but if you have to ride it out in one, it should be in a cabin without touching electronics or the walls. Cars are pretty safe, but not as good as proper buildings, and again, don’t touch metal frameworks.

If you are caught in a lightning storm on the beach and can’t get to an enclosed building or car, don’t just run to a partially enclosed picnic table or similar structure. Instead, stay away from the tallest objects (lifeguard stands, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or bleachers), standing pools of water, and open areas.

You can monitor thunderstorms and severe weather forecasts online at www.spc.noaa.gov . For more information about lightning safety, a good site is www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov .

Tech and Harvey

As Beach Patrol Supervisor Austin Kirwin navigated his jet ski to the side of the highway to drop off another group of rescued people, his partner helped them dismount the rescue sled attached to the ski and walked them to shore. Meanwhile, Austin pulled out his phone in its waterproof case and squinted through the rain and wind as he checked his messages. He had several new addresses that had been sent to him by someone who was combing social media platforms looking for people stranded in the Dickinson area. He chose one and directed the other three Beach Patrol rescue crews to other addresses.

It’s amazing what a role technology played during Harvey in comparison to just a few years earlier with Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Ike. In Austin’s case, while power was down in many of the areas where people were stranded, they still had cell service and a charge on their phone. While waiting for rescue on roofs, in attics, or in the second stories of houses, many people were actively communicating via social media, text, and by making calls. While our emergency management structures were getting a handle on the immense scope of the problem, some of our more tech savvy responders were getting information through other methods. Later, when we were getting addresses directly though emergency management the process was much more efficient. But during the early stages, new technology was pretty useful.

There’s a web based program that emergency management centers use to coordinate aid and requests for aid now. If you are leading a city, county, or emergency response group you can request what you need via this program. It will be assessed and compared to other groups offering all kinds of aid. There was also an app created during Harvey to coordinate first responders in Houston. And there are several apps you can go to for requesting everything from donations of clothing or household items to volunteers who are willing to come help you rip the sheetrock out of your walls.

My crew used cell phones more than their radios to keep track of each other by sending maps with pins in them to indicate an address they need to evacuate people from to showing each other what their location is.  I was pretty impressed with my team. Most are young and tech savvy and did an amazing job of combining their grasp of newer technology with a strong base of rescue skills. But even as this played out a little voice in my head was saying not to become dependent on this. One thing those who have gone through a few disasters learns is that each crisis is very different and you can’t count on anything. Just because cell phones worked during Harvey doesn’t mean that we can count on that for the next one.

Modern responders are using new tools and technology to the best advantage, but should remain flexible and build redundant systems into any preparation or response.

Teamwork Across Texas Agencies

It has been a rough summer on the upper Texas coast up to this point and this has led to some cause and effect incidents that are both interesting and tragic. We’ve had a persistent strong wind for most of the season, resulting in strong lateral current and surf. This has, in turn, led to almost constant strong rip currents near structures and occasional strong rip currents along the open beach. It’s also the reason the troughs between the sand bars have been so unusually deep, even near to the shoreline.

Partly because of the conditions and large crowds there has been a number of heart wrenching water related deaths all along our entire stretch of coastline. But as a result there have been some pretty interesting developments recently that have potential to reduce similar incidents in the future.

A friend from the Sheriff Office contacted me awhile ago to explore the option of synchronizing some of our water safety efforts. It looks like for starters they will be using a modified version of our water safety material on their website and will even use the widget from our flag warning system. This means that if we post a red flag warning of rough surf and dangerous currents the same flag warning will show on their website as well. People can sign up to receive notifications via email or text when we set the flag color for the day and if we change it. Also, if we post special advisories for extra strong rip currents, off shore winds, air or water quality warnings, etc., those warnings will include the Bolivar Peninsula. Additionally, I met with Bolivar County parks representatives recently and they are exploring several options including that of flag warning stations like we have on the seawall, at beach parks, and on the back of lifeguard towers.

As we all know the San Luis Pass has been a problem for years. We’ve reduced the average number of drowning on the Galveston side by an ordinance banning swimming and, more recently, greatly increased signage and dedicated weekend patrols throughout the summer. On holiday weekends we even have help from the County “Citizens Emergency Response Team” or C.E.R.T. These volunteers augment our efforts at keeping people out of the dangerous waters there. This week I spoke at a Brazoria County Commissioners Court meeting about the history and dangers of the area as well as what we’re doing on our side. They are very interested in increasing their drowning prevention efforts. They’ve already put signs on their side which are very similar to ours. They’re looking at putting a law in place similar to our ordinance. This is a great thing.

Quintana and Surfside Beaches are also exploring options.  With re-vamped lifeguard programs at Port Aransas and Corpus now meeting the United States Lifesaving Association national standards as well as the two relatively new lifeguard services at South Padre island the dream of a more standardized network of protective programs for Texas beaches seems to be in reach.

May School Graduates

We are having another tryout and lifeguard academy that will start at 7am on June 15th. Information is on our website. Spread the word!

Last weekend we had a big turnout for our lifeguard tryouts. Typically, less than half of the people that show up make it through the process and are admitted into our two week lifeguard academy. The 21 people that made it in may get whittled down more, but it looks like we have a really good crew. Unfortunately, we need more then this group to be fully staffed this summer, so we’ll try for more.

Our goal in the Beach Patrol Academy is to take a diverse bunch of people and make them into a seamless team. It’s always interesting to watch how people very different from each other become fast, lifelong friends in the process of this training and working together for a shared goal. We have one candidate that will make an unusual, but excellent addition to Galveston’s lifeguard service.

I’d like to introduce you to Bill Bower. As you’d imagine the average age in a typical academy is in the high teens or lower 20’s. Bill joined us a few weeks ago by volunteering to go through our Wave Watcher training program, which trains citizens how to spot trouble on the beach, be a tourist ambassador, and helps us expand our footprint. After getting to know a bit about our program as a volunteer, he decided to tryout. And tryout he did!

Bill holds the fastest qualifying time of all our candidates. At 62, this is impressive, but not surprising. He has an extensive background in aquatics. His father was a swim coach. Bill is a three time All American Swimming Champion. His senior year in high school he even broke the national record and went on a swimming scholarship to Tulane University. He worked for years as a swim coach and math teacher and has coached over 50 All Americans. But even more interesting is that while he coached and taught, he also traveled all over the world as a consultant for TSI.

At 60 this Renaissance Man started swimming competitively again and swims about 2 miles a day. He moved from Michigan to Galveston “for love” and is engaged to someone from Houston.

He said he was worried that he wouldn’t be accepted by the group. The first day a young woman sat next to him and said something about him being “brave”. But then they saw him swim.

Bill says, “It’s been a real challenge keeping up with the gifted athletes participating in lifeguard academy. They are an outstanding group and I’m proud to be part of the group. They have welcomed me despite my age…”

From my point of view we are very lucky to have Bill join the team. We’re excited to incorporate his experience and obvious skill in the water into our ranks. But even more, he is an impressive person who will represent Galveston well.

 

Pleasure Pier Rescue

The waves weren’t that big but there was a steady current running from east to west. After clearing the Pleasure Pier, it made a wide long loop to shore and, on the inside, pushed west to east. The new sand with its steeper drop off caused the waves and current to pile up and push offshore and towards the pier.

The three people shared two inner tubes between them as they entered the water between the Pleasure Pier and the groin at 27th street. They floated along and were unknowingly pulled towards the Pleasure Pier and out in a strong rip current. Waves and current mixed about half way out causing really choppy conditions. They tried to paddle towards shore but it was a hopeless battle. As they neared the end of the pier they really started getting scared and began to panic.

Lieutenant Kara Harrison runs the administrative arm of the Beach Patrol. Although not required to by her job description, she chooses to maintain her training, swimming , and skills each year. She re-qualified her lifeguard skills earlier this year and maintains them.

Kara was on her way home at the end of her shift from her office at Stewart Beach. As she passed the Pleasure Pier, her experienced eye caught a glimpse of three heads way, way out near the “T Head”. She called in that she was going in on three swimmers in distress.

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas and Supervisor Gabe Macicek were at 10th street when the call dropped. They flipped on their lights and sirens and headed quickly to the area. Gabe maintained radio communications and Joe grabbed a rescue board and headed out to help. What followed was nothing short of amazing.

Joe is a full time Supervisor and a gifted “waterman”. He is our top paddler and stands out as a top athlete in an organization of incredibly gifted athletes. His rescue board cut through the chop and current like a hot knife through butter. One of the group had drifted off on an inner tube while Kara struggled to maintain her ground with the other two. He brought the first victim to shore and looked back out.

Meanwhile Kara was using her rescue tube and one of the inner tubes to keep the victims stable. She swam hard to keep them from drifting into the waves that piled up near the pier. They were ok for the moment but were unable to make progress towards shore.

Joe powered back out and took another victim in. Kara, with her lightened load, was able to make progress into the rip current and was about half way in when Joe relieved her and took the third victim back to shore.

Back on shore they heard the rare words lifeguards love to hear from a person they saved:

“If it wasn’t for you guys we would never have made it back in. You saved our lives”.

Kudos to Kara and Joe for an amazing rescue!

Go Texas Beaches!

Some exciting things to do with ocean safety are happening in Texas right now.

Galveston has had some type of lifeguard protection for recreational swimmers since just a few years after 1900. This isn’t the case for most of the Texas coast. For many years the beaches of South Padre Island didn’t have any type of lifeguard protection at all. Now there are two lifeguard services on South Padre Island, one for the city of South Padre Island and one for Cameron County. We helped them both get off the ground a few years ago, and they eventually joined and became certifying agencies for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA). The USLA is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers . The USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.

The Corpus Christi area is another story. Both the city of Corpus and that of Port Aransas have had some type of lifeguard organization for a number of years. Although they never had the structure, resources, and quality of the Galveston Beach Patrol, back in the early 90’s they were fairly well organized and we even had competitions and other types of interaction with them for a brief period. They’ve gone through several changes- some political and some related to resources, but overall seem to have declined over the past few years. That seems to be at an end. For a long time they have been using a Red Cross pool certification for their lifeguards. The formal training they’ve received does not prepare them for working the beach. It is also way below what the national standard is. Not only is this a liability for the cities, but is a disservice for the lifeguards and the people they protect. Making a rescue in the ocean is really dangerous even if you’re properly trained, equipped, and meet a high level of swimming and fitness requirement.

The Corpus group recently hired a new lifeguard chief who was one of the people we trained down in South Padre. He and his boss have applied for their agency to join USLA and plan on implementing training that meets the national standard that USLA sets this spring. They invited us down to teach a “train the trainers” course at the end of this month and were open to including the Port Aransas group in the course. The Port Aransas group is also applying to USLA and is planning the same. They may even have joint training courses for the two groups in the late spring.

The big picture is that now, as long as Texans choose a beach with lifeguards, they will get protection that meets the USLA national standard. USLA statistics show that your chance of drowning at a beach with USLA certified guards is 1 in 18 million. That’s a good deal for Texas.

Crabbing Trip Gone Wrong

The late afternoon sun danced across the water of the East End Lagoon. A six year old boy was crabbing in the shallow pool on the side of the road. As he walked back and forth his family fished, hung out, and enjoyed the beautiful Saturday afternoon. An occasional car crossed the bridge above the pool, temporarily drowning out the sounds of birds, lapping water, and the light breeze caressing the marsh grasses.

A gently current caused by an outgoing tide flowed through the pool. The lagoon emptied slowly into the pool through a large pipe under the bridge and exited into the ship channel through a set of 5 smaller pipes. The boy wandered close to one of these smaller pipes.

All that water has to get through pipes only about 3 feet in diameter. Near the pipes the gentle current turned into a jet of unrelenting force. The boy was sucked in.

The boy’s mother screamed as she saw him pulled under the water and into the dark pipe.

Though water has a life of its own, it follows set rules. It shows neither malice nor mercy. It can have a tremendous effect on its environment. Where it leaves this particular pipe it scours out the sand bottom leaving an area that is deep and dangerous with strong currents. A number of people, many of them children, have lost their lives through the years at this exact spot.

The woman saw her son’s little body as it spat from the tunnel on the other side. With superhuman quickness she jumped in where the current flowed out and managed to swim over and grab him before he succumbed to the force of the water, like so many before him. She towed him around the source of the current to the rock wall. Pushing him to safety she slipped back onto the rocks, breaking her ankle and sustaining a number of cuts and abrasions. But she didn’t stop until he was safely on the ledge with other family members.

This is a story of heroism and more than a little bit of luck. We are so relieved for this family that they all returned home with only minor injuries and a story that will no doubt be told and retold for years to come. But it’s also a story of personal responsibility.

In a developed country like the USA, we are fortunate to have layers of protection, even to a certain extent in the natural environment. Because of the history of this area, the Beach Patrol maintains quite a number of safety signs warning of the dangers. We make frequent passes enforcing the rules that prevent swimming in the ship channel and in this pool. But with the resources we have and 33 miles of beach to protect we can’t be everywhere all the time. Nor can our public safety partners.

Guards and signs are critical, but you are the most important and effective layer of protection.

 

 

Storm

The weather last weekend was a good dry run for the emergency services. With the mix of a low in the Gulf, the incredibly powerful hurricane crossing over from Mexico, and a strong frontal system converging all around the same time no one knew exactly how bad it would get.

There are a lot of decisions riding on the weather forecast. Everything from when to move equipment off the beach to what areas are likely to become dangerous flooded roadways depend on the prediction. As always, our area National Weather Service Office came through with outstanding support. They went into overtime and started pumping out the latest information in the form of reports that included everything from rainfall amounts to tidal information and areas of the county that would be most heavily impacted. They also liaised with the Beach Patrol and other groups to put out coastal marine reports that include feedback from those of us on the ground. One of the most significant groups they support are the county and city Emergency Management (EOC) Offices.

The EOC offices then push that information along with real time information about specific areas that are affected out to the public and Emergency Services. In this particular case the City of Galveston EOC made the call to staff the call center throughout the event and to partially activate the Galveston Marine Response (GMR) program. This was not done lightly but looking at the potential hazard and consulting with the various emergency response agencies they felt better to be safe than to risk under reacting and have to play catch-up once things were developing.

Once activated, three teams comprised of members with various skill sets joined up and based themselves at 3 strategic fire stations so they could provide response to sections of the island if cut off. Each team combined had the following capabilities- water rescue, medical, law enforcement, communications. Each had a high water vehicle and a boat. A leader was appointed to each team so that each could operate independently if communications were cut off. Once the team members were “on loan” from the Police, Fire, or Beach Patrol they operate under the management of the Emergency Operation Center and the GMR Steering Committee throughout the event. A full activation would involve more teams and people and we would even rotate working teams out and replace them with fresh bodies while the first teams recovered and prepared to be re-deployed.

Fortunately, the event wasn’t too severe. The majority of the flooding ended up happening during the night when few people were out moving around. There was some flooding in specific areas from the high tides and all the rain, but it subsided fairly quickly. The teams ended up only responding to a couple of minor things.

The exercise is valuable though, as it will make things smoother when a big event happens and shows how much greater the whole is than the sum of its parts.

Car In The Water

“Beach Patrol, car in the water 8 mile road bayside. Occupants possibly trapped inside”.

A call we dread, particularly at night. Supervisor Mary Stewart was on call for Beach Patrol last Tuesday. Supervisor/Officer Austin Kirwin happened to be near the radio and asked if she wanted assistance, which she wisely accepted. Water call at night can be pretty scary at night no matter how well trained you are. Each of our year round staff members has been there and is quick to help each other out.

The 911 dispatcher followed protocol and dispatched the lifeguards first, then all the other emergency responders. In a water emergency it doesn’t make sense to have a police officer or paramedic arriving first and waiting a long time until a lifeguard gets there to enter the water. Life threatening events typically develop much faster in water than on land.

Once Beach Patrol was on the way the dispatcher called the rest of the “Galveston Marine Response” group which for this call included police, fire, EMS, and Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue. While on the way they all switched to the shared “Marine Response” channel and coordinated their resources. When the Fire Department arrived they set up lights and located the vehicle. Police blocked off the area and EMS staged for a potential medical emergency.

Austin arrived to find the car still floating after blasting off the end of the road. It was about 70 yards from the shore and a man in a white shirt was sitting cross legged on the roof. He grabbed his rescue board and a tube and got there quickly. Upon arrival he first asked if there was anyone else in the car. The man said there wasn’t. After a short conversation to assess the mental status of the man and a quick look inside the car, Austin was able to get him onto the rescue board and paddled him to safety, where he was checked out by EMS and Fire. He was later transported by EMS to the emergency room.  While being rescued the man asked how he ended up on top of the now barely floating car. Once he had completed the rescue, Austin went back out to the car to recheck for other victims.

The Police Dive team was assembling and Sergeant John Courtney and Mary Stewart went in the Jamaica Beach Boat to join Austin in checking the vehicle. They found nothing and towed the bobbing vehicle close enough for a wrecker to hook up to it. The headlights were still on as divers double checked for victims.

So while the rest of the island slept the Galveston Marine Response worked seamlessly to rescue yet another person from a near catastrophe. Each of these groups has budgets that are pinched tighter and tighter each year but they still find a way to make rescues like this happen. Austin didn’t have to respond to that call but he and the men and women of each of the GMR participating agencies know that their efforts make a huge difference.

Early Run

The air had just a tinge of pre-dawn chill and the sun peeked over the water as I started my early morning run. The rays were touching the tops of buildings and were moments from hitting us as I jogged past the woman sitting hunched over and alone on the seawall bench.

She must have heard my footsteps. She suddenly turned to me with a big smile and said, “Wow!”, then looked back over the tranquil water.

As I continued to run, my lungs expanded and the blood flowed more easily. My attention turned away from little aches and pains as I settled into a pace. As I drew inward I reflected on the woman. Sometimes someone who is not from here has to remind us how beautiful it can be and how lucky we are to live so close to the ocean. I thought about how she must be feeling while the early rays touched her face and she felt and smelled the salty breeze.

For Galveston locals the early morning beach time often involves an early commute to work or morning exercise. Our minds are cluttered as we run through what the day will bring or dwell on our latest issues. But to travel and remove yourself from your routine enables you to live a little more in the moment. To focus on things more clearly. Beaches are a vehicle to get closer to the natural environment if we’re open.

Living in one of the places that people go to get away from their life and renew themselves can be a challenge. We’re just getting used to driving down the seawall without someone pulling some crazy, no-signal-making lane change or abrupt speed alteration. Living in a west end beach house  is getting quieter without the summer parties in all the neighborhood rental houses and it’s a welcome change to walk out the door without having to clean someone’s beer cans off my yard. But all the little annoyances are a small price to pay for the time of year we just entered. And tourists are the reason that many of the nice things we enjoy in Galveston exist, so it’s not a bad trade off.

Beautiful empty beaches and a perfect air and water temperature don’t last long in the fall and spring but they are sure wonderful if we can take the time to get the same joy from them as the tourists do when they visit. These are the times that make it worth living here.

On my way back I saw the woman on the bench staring out to the ocean, a smile on her lips. She didn’t acknowledge me this time and appeared to be deep in thought. Looking closely I noticed her head was wrapped in a bandana and she had deep, dark bags under her eyes. I realized how much she must have been going through and felt grateful she found some solace on the beach this beautiful morning.