Drowning at 61st

Last Tuesday morning a man got to the beach at 61st early, walked around a bit, left his things just east of the pier, and went into the water. The time that elapsed at that point is unclear, but when the lifeguard arrived on location, all he saw was calm, clear, water with a tiny hint of clean waves rolling onto the beach. Unlike most mornings this season, there were only a handful of people on the beach.

As the lifeguard prepared for the day, he opened the tower, raised the appropriate flags, arranged his things, and left tracks to and from the water when he checked the conditions. He looked for unusually strong currents or drop offs, and felt which way the current was going, so he’d have an idea how far to keep people from the groin and what hazards he would protect them from. After his usual routine, he settled in for his shift.

A short time later, he spotted a body floating in about chest deep water, maybe 50 yards from the rocks on the east side. He notified dispatch and ran into the water. The guard at 59th reported he had no swimmers near his groin and was cleared to run down and help. A supervisor arrived a very short time later as they dragged the man from the water onto the sand. The three of them did CPR, intubated the man, and hooked him up to the AED (Automatic External Defibrillator). The machine did not advise a shock. They continued CPR with the help of the Fire Department and EMS when they arrived. The man was quickly loaded into the ambulance, and they drove away. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

Once the ambulance, police vehicles, fire truck, and Beach Patrol rescue trucks left the area, the beach returned to the quiet, apparently innocuous, day it started as with the exception of our tire tracks and prints from walking, dragging and kneeling.

There was more. We interviewed people to try to figure out what happened. Gathered his things off the beach and let city officials, other public safety groups, and the media know what happened. Wrote up a report that contained everything we could figure out and sent it to the Medical Examiner’s office. Talked to the man’s two sisters and met with one to give her his things. Reviewed the event internally to determine if we did everything we could have and what we can do to prevent a similar occurrence. One of the most critical things is that we contacted our partners at the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network to contact the family to see if they could offer any type of psychological or spiritual support, and to set up a critical incident counselling session with the guards who responded, to make sure they were ok and will continue to be ok.

The marks we made on the sand were washed away with the next high tide.

Lightning Policy

WHACK! I didn’t remember seeing a flash or hearing thunder, but my ears were ringing. I looked around and it felt like I’d just woken up. My heart was beating pretty quickly, and my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I noticed a volleyball court pole about 15 yards away was split in half and shards of wood were scattered in a radius of 20 feet or so from the pole.

Suddenly it was if a fog cleared, and I remembered dispatch had radioed with a warning about a storm cell moving in the area and realized two guards were on a metal 4 wheeler 3 miles down the beach in the direction the storm was moving. We were helping set up for a footrace on Stewart Beach. On the way there, two more bolts hit close enough that I couldn’t tell a time difference between the bang and the flash, but I never saw where they hit. When I got there, the three of us huddled in my truck, windows up, without touching the sides or radios.  We canceled the event.

The United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org) and the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) years back formed a task force that I was on to establish procedures to notify the public on our nation’s beaches when lightning poses a threat. I learned a great deal, but the main points were that the general public should seek shelter in a closed building that’s grounded or a vehicle when they hear thunder. Open buildings, non-grounded shelters, or just getting out of the water and on the beach does not protect you or your family. Armed with that information we in the United States Lifesaving Association came up with a template and guidelines for beach lifeguard agencies to use to establish policies for protecting both the public and their staff from lightening strikes.

Our Supervisors have been revisiting this policy recently to try to tighten up some of the cracks. They’re really committed to protecting people and it’s been a good discussion which was facilitated by Supervisor Micah Fowler. As is recommended, we pull the guards from most of the towers and notify the beachgoing public via PA systems to seek shelter in a vehicle or building when lightning strikes within 10 miles of where they are. We have two fancy towers that are grounded that we’re able to leave guards in, but the other 29 towers we clear. Sounds good on paper, but we’re talking about 33 miles of beach and potentially as many as 150,000 people. And often we aren’t able to get back to the same area quickly enough when we put the guards back up and its safe to get back out there.

So, the consensus is that the best approach is to have the guards drop their flags to show the area isn’t’ guarded and include in the announcements that when the guards return the lightning is no longer a threat.

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

Happy New Year!

We have worked for many years with the lifeguards in our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico. After awhile I
grew to love not only the city and people, but the entire coastline. When my wife and I had our little girl,
we drove down there for the course, stayed a few extra days, then toured around Mexico. We had a
restored VW camper van, which made the travel easy. Often, we’d ride down the Gulf Coast, camping
and surfing the beaches. Then after the course ended, we’d shoot over to the Pacific side and work our
way up the coast to Mazatlán before heading home across the mountains. Each year, we’d follow the
suggestions of our friends there and check out somewhere new.
One year someone in the course suggested we go to the mountains near Morelia to see the place the
Monarch Butterflies come from. Our daughter, Kai, was two or three at the time and we thought that
would be a cool thing, especially because she was into butterflies just then. We arrived at this tiny
mountain pueblo and got a room at one of the two hotels near the plaza. The next morning a guide
picked us up in a 4wd truck and took us up this steep, bumpy road to an indigenous community. There,
and old man took us up and up these ancient stone steps to a meadow full of butterflies. We thought
that was it and were already impressed, but he laughed and explained in broken Spanish that we had to
go into the trees. By a small brook we were completely enveloped in butterflies. The whisper of
thousands of wings drowned out all other sound. Between the 4 of us standing about 5 feet apart there
must have been several hundred, and they covered us head to toe. He told us how they are born there
and then migrate up to several places in Texas and elsewhere before heading north. But eventually they
all find their way back to this on mountain. It takes three lifecycles to complete the entire journey, so its
the grandchildren that return to the mountain, as they’ve done for thousands of years.
From that time on, I’ve been acutely aware of the cyclical nature of things, particularly the beach. The
moon revolves around the earth, causing the tides. Animals and plants periodically flourish in numbers
and then go through periods where there are relatively few. Waves go through cycles of large and small
swell patterns. Hurricanes and storms periodically sweep the beach clean of all debris and knock down
the sand dunes, which in turn re-grow. And, of course, the seasons come and go.
The new year marks the beginning of another season, and a new start. This year will hopefully bring a
return of programs like Junior Guards, Wave Watchers, and Survivor Support Network. And it will bring
new challenges and unexpected good things.
Good luck Galveston as we move with the changes, the time, and the tide. And Happy New Year!

Happy Holidays

A line of 10and 11 year old kids waited, twitching. Their hands tight on the handles of rescue boards.
“Go!” yelled the instructor. They carried the boards to the water, laid the boards down, and pushed
them until they got about waist deep. Then they jumped on top and started paddling.
Once they got up there were some who paddled on their knees and others who opted for the prone
position. They started making progress towards a buoy that was about 30 yards offshore. A group shout
rang out as a wave approached. Some made it over the top, others grabbed the handles and rolled over,
pulling the boards down. Still others were pushed back by the wave almost to the starting point.
Instructors paddled beside them giving instructions and advice, but mostly keeping a watchful eye on all
the kids. There was one instructor for every 5 kids. Eventually, all the kids made it around the buoy and
headed towards shore. Some of the lucky ones caught waves and rode, smiling, all the way up to the dry
sand. Others slugged it out until they paddled all the way to shore. When they all got to shore, they
huddled up and went over what they learned, giving each other tips. The instructors reinforced the good
techniques and offered encouragement.
By the end of the 6 weeks of the Junior Lifeguard program kids can make that paddle effortlessly. They
get better at swimming, running, and paddling. They learn CPR and first aid. They have an awareness of
the various gulf creatures that can harm you or are just really cool to know about. And they have
general knowledge of lifeguarding techniques. But that’s just part of it.
The kids graduate with an awareness that they can and should help others. They stand taller and speak
more directly and clearly. And each summer when they come back all of this is amplified.
Not being able to have our Junior Guard Program was one of the worst things that Covid caused our
overall program. We love them being there. The guards like having them come up in their towers to
“shadow guard”. And we like the relationship with the parents and community that the program brings
as a side effect.
Our holiday wish is that we are able to bring back some of the things that we had to forgo this year. We
are not just the Galveston lifeguard program. We are an interconnected web of programs including the
Junior Guards, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers. We need to return to our daily
training to keep the guards sharp and our annual BBQ to include the other beach groups and the
community in our world.
Holiday greetings from the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. Lets hope that 2021 will bring back some of
what we missed and that we keep the good things we learned about ourselves and our world this year.
We hope that you and yours have a great holiday and a wonderful new year.

Waves

It was a bad idea.
Archie Kalepa led the group as we swam towards the cliff face. Archie is the former Chief of Lifeguards in
Maui, world renowned big wave surfer and Hawaiian living legend. The problem with being Archie’s
friend is that he is a giving soul and is real comfortable in big water. He wants to share the things he
loves selflessly. And he loves putting himself in situations that normal people should not be in.
Not that our group was green. Among them was Rob Williams- chief of lifeguards in Newport Beach and
former national water polo champion. Also Jay Butki- SoCal legendary Baywatch boat aptain who has
won more national lifeguard championship titles than I can count. All were people who grew up in and
around lifesaving and the ocean. But none of us were Archie, and he was in his backyard.
“I promise you, the waves (probably) won’t smash you against the rocks”, Archie was saying as I started
to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There nothing worse than a bunch of grown up, midlife
crisis having, lifeguard/athletes trying to show off for each other. And this looked like a prime example.
So, these big- I mean really big- ocean waves were smashing up against the cliff face. And we were going
to swim right up there into that maelstrom. As we got close, a big set was just hitting. It lifted us up
maybe 30 feet. You could see the rock face flying by underwater because the water was so clear. We
reached the peak, and then plunged back down, stomach dropping out with the weightlessness of the
descent. I broke the surface to the sound of Archie howling with laughter and pointing to our faces
which varied from bloodless to green to the embodiment of sheer terror. But, true to his word, no one
had a scratch on them. By the time we’d done it a few times we all were howling with laughter, giddy
with adrenaline. And Archie looked like a proud papa showing off his baby to a roomful of visitors.
That wave was an extreme example of a surging wave. A wave that pushes up against some type of
surface and falls back without breaking. We have them next to the groins and against the south jetty.
They aren’t 30 or40 feet, but it’s the same thing. We know if we have a victim up against the rocks we
can get in there and them without getting smashed.
Surging waves are one of 3 types of waves that exist. Rolling waves are deep water swells. Spilling waves
break in water because its shallow enough to break. Surfers ride them and they’re the ones we associate
with our Galveston beach. Plunging waves break onto a dry or near dry surface. A hard beach break or
waves breaking onto a rocky surface would be examples.
Knowing and understanding waves is critical to lifeguarding. So is putting yourself in uncomfortable
situations so you expand the types of conditions you’re comfortable making rescues in.

Sharks

Nat Geo was in town this week to talk sharks and along with a couple of people who were bitten back in
2004, interviewed me about beach dangers.
Back then we had three documented shark bites in one summer. Our average comes to about a bite
every two years. Like anything that doesn’t mean a bite every two years, we’ve had some stretches of 5
or more years without incident.
Generally, bites in our area are just that. Bites. Sort of a case of mistaken identity where a shark is
feeding on schooling fish and the person is in the middle of the school. The shark bites the person by
accident, lets go, and swims away. One of the cameramen for the shoot put it really well. He said,
“Sharks don’t have thumbs”. So, to check something to see what its like can cause damage.
Other beaches where sharks routinely feed on large mammals are a different thing. A surfer can look a
lot like a seal from the bottom. I felt really differently about sharks when I lived in northern California.
Understanding how water animals think is an important way to reduce your chances of bad things
happening. Those of us who are in the water all the time routinely shuffle our feet to chase away small
animals including sharks, avoid swimming near schooling fish, don’t go in the water if we’re leaking
blood, and don’t swim where a river or bay empties in the gulf to stay away from all the bait fish. People
that wade fish a lot don’t sit in the water with a bunch of bloody fish on a short stringer. Commercial
divers paint the silver on their regulators black so there’s no shiny object to attract sharks or barracuda.
All that said, the chances of getting bit by a shark are tiny. We see 7 million people a year at our beach
and only have a bite every couple of years on the beachfront. A lightning strike is much more dangerous.
Rip currents are much more of a threat to human life in the ocean. And what about that drive to the
beach? Deaths in car accidents is way more likely, but we’re desensitized to that, so hardly think about
it.
The ocean is not our natural habitat and we’re guests when we enter it. But if we’re respectful of the
full-time inhabitants and put ourselves in their position, it helps us understand how to reduce our
chances of injury. And its so worth the risk.
Lifeguards have to train in the conditions they rescue people in, so we’re in the ocean almost daily all
year. We view the risk the same way normal people look at driving to work. But for most people, the
choice to enter the ocean is a chance to experience not being in control and to get closer to the natural
environment. Knowing how to reduce chances of injury is important, but when balanced out, It’s worth
the risk.

San Diego

The last two columns targeted the history of the lifeguard service of Galveston, which dates all the way
back to 1875. Galveston and the Houston area have grown significantly in the years since then, and
we’ve all had to adapt as a community, including the Beach Patrol.
We now see over 7 million visitors annually and protect them with a lifeguard budget of around 3
million dollars. We stretch that quite a bit to cover 9 miles proactively for 7 months out of the year with
lifeguard towers at dangerous areas like the rock groins, or high use areas like the beach parks. We run a
large Junior Lifeguard Program which pays for itself and have a small police department comprised of
lifeguard supervisors. We stretch our dollars further by incorporating community volunteer programs
that provide extra eyes and ears, as well as support services to our guards and the public.
Looking around the country we are well above the bar for the service we provide. We like to say that
“pound for pound” we are the best lifeguard service in the country. By this we mean that for the
resources we use, we provide the most protection possible for people that visit our beaches. But its hard
to compare to others in many ways because we all offer different auxiliary programs. One of the most
well-known and professional lifeguard services that offers a lot of auxiliary services is in San Diego.
The San Diego Lifeguard Service deals with something like 28 million people a year and has a budget
that, currently sits somewhere around 25 million, they are in a different ballpark when compared to our
3 million dollars and 7 million people. But looking at all they do is impressive.
The two agencies have a similar call volume during the high season and the beaches have about the
same area to cover. San Diego has year-round beach use where we have 2-3 months when its much
slower. But the San Diego Lifeguard Service provides cliff rescue service, handles the swift water rescue
for the fire department, and provides harbor patrol service. They also have a really well-equipped dive
team that not only is the go-to group for search and salvage, but even has a contract with the military
for the area. To pull all this off they have a large full-time work force which is supplemented by seasonal
part time staff and run their own dispatch operation 24/7. So, the year-round staff can qualify to be on
the specialty teams and are called out from their regular duties of lifesaving, dispatch, and harbor patrol
when they are needed. Of course, to make this work they have to maintain a large staff of well trained
(and well paid) lifeguards.
Many of the other groups around the country hate (in a friendly way) the San Diego group because their
pay is high (and they used to have a helicopter). But they lack something important. They don’t get to
live in Galveston!

Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

Lifesaver

A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat. There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside, was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf, and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape. Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid 1800’s and these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen”, who were employees of the US Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master”. During the day they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat. They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk, and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off of the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pully system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews. This was very dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century the US Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations. and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association. This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect todays beachgoers.