Veracruz

Early morning sunlight slanted off of the water as two parallel columns of potential guards jogged through knee deep water at Playa del Muerto in Boca Del Rio, Mexico. Mixed with the bird calls, sounds of waves and a slight breeze, was the raspy panting sounds of the group’s efforts.

Strain showed on the faces of many of the lifeguard candidates as they struggled to follow the whistle commands. One blast for start/stop. Two to start sprints from the back of the columns to the front. Multiple short blasts to switch columns. Early morning beachgoers, joggers, and vendors setting up for the day looked on as the went to deeper water, then back to the shallows, and up on the beach around obstacles. Galveston Beach Patrol Lifeguards Stephen Limones and Bill Bower joined a couple of experienced lifeguards to keep the columns in line and following the whistle commands I gave.

For almost 20 years Galveston has had a relationship with the “conurbada” (joined city) of Veracruz and Boca del Rio, Mexico. Years ago the head of Beach Patrol at that time, Vic Maceo, and I joined a delegation to our sister city. While there we noticed they had lifeguards covering their beaches, which were similar to ours in many ways. We walked down to talk to a lifeguard tower and met Juan Canananga, who ended up being a good friend of mine for many years. He introduced us to other guards who explained that they’d only started their lifeguard program the year before and were figuring out how to lifeguard based on two sources. The first was the many people in the area who were fishermen and surfers who understood the ocean’s intricacies. The second was an American television show called “Guardianes de la Bahia”, which we all know as “Baywatch”. They started the program because of the large numbers of drownings the year before. I don’t remember the number, but I do remember them telling us that they averaged about 35 drowning deaths a year. We found out that they had two new jet skis but didn’t have any formal training in swimming or lifesaving techniques. From there, lifeguards did what they do all over the world. We helped each other.

Our exchange program has lasted for close to two decades. We have gone down there and they’ve come up here. We taught lifesaving techniques and returned with knowledge that has helped us immensely related to Mexican and Latino culture, ways to collaboratively work with other public safety groups, and how to manage large tourist crowds. They see immense amounts of visitors and put a lot of resources into beach and tourist management. They’ve now dropped their average drowning rate 35 to 5 annually as a result of all of this.

This year was special because we co-taught with the newly formed National Mexican Lifesaving Federation, which we’ve been working collaboratively towards for over a decade. They will take the lead from here. But that’s a whole different story!

What Goes Around Comes Around

A man I know from the beach is a regular on the east end. He trolls regularly with his metal detector and sometimes pulls up some pretty cool stuff. These guys love it when we get a strong north wind which blows the water way out, particularly at low tide. On these days they can get to areas that are usually too deep to check under normal circumstances. We were chatting about this in a local restaurant and the conversation led to two pretty amazing stories.

A short time ago he was at east beach checking the area near the South Jetty. He was facing out to sea and standing in shallow water where a current was pulling towards the rocks while working his metal detector. A small form floated by right in front of him. He reached down and picked up a 3-year-old girl who would have surely drowned. When he got her out of the water and saw she could breathe still, she started crying loudly. Her mother charged him yelling and it almost got physical. She snatched her daughter out of his arms and to this day probably doesn’t realize he saved her little girl’s life.

The second story is set in the 80’s on the other end of the island at the San Luis Pass. The man, then in his early 30’s, went wade fishing with a friend. They were on the second sand bar when the friend suggested they go out to the 3rd sand bar. The man, who was the captain of his swim team in high school a decade earlier, got tired and started going under. He is a self-described “tough guy” who worked as a door man at bars and never pictured himself as someone who would panic. He remembers struggling, but not much else. Later he found out that he went under and when his friend tried to help him, he tried to climb up on his friend and they both almost drowned. Somehow, his friend was able to kick him away, regroup, and then managed to grab him and tow him back to the second sand bar. At that point they were barely conscious and barely able to maintain their heads above water even while touching bottom. Beach Patrol got to them before they gave up completely and brought them to shore.

The man refused medical treatment, but later that evening collapsed in his own home and was transported by EMS to the hospital. He ended up having to stay in the hospital for 3 weeks because water in his lungs led to severe pneumonia. After he recovered, he was always alert and cautious when around the water, which for him has been a big part of his life. The event also led him to be aware of his limits and respectful of the potential power of the ocean.

Because of all this, after he was rescued in the 80’s, he lived to rescue another person over 3 decades later.

Winter Dangers

We’re in our typical crazy winter Galveston pattern of weather now, so there are some important things to be aware of when on the water.

With recent water temps in the 60’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. This week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person in a reasonable time frame. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a few miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water! But with the proper precautions and equipment this is one of the best times of the year to get out there to enjoy your favorite activity on the water. Its uncrowded and beautiful. And this there’s no better way to connect with nature and disconnect from the daily grind.

South Jetty Rescue of Four Boaters

The icy wind blasted across the rocks as the two wetsuit clad figures picked their way gingerly across the algae and barnacle covered surface in the darkness. No moon showed to help. Waves and spray threatened to wash them away. Dain Buck had a headlight and Kevin Anderson had a waterproof flashlight tucked under the strap of his hood. They had rescue tubes clipped around their waist, wore lifejackets, and carried rescue fins and flairs. They made slow forward progress but had to stop periodically when waves washed across the jetty. Suddenly a cut in the rocks about 20 yards across appeared. Water rushed through. They stopped and huddled together to shout over the gale though frozen lips, strategizing. Time was critical.

4 men were caught in a strong frontal system and their boat swamped. The boat sank as it was pushed towards the South Jetty, and the men were able to scramble up and huddle behind a large rock. They called 911 and spoke with a dispatcher, who immediately alerted the Galveston Marine Response and US Coast Guard.

When Dain and Kevin heard the call, they did what Beach Patrol protocol dictates and tried to launch a 22 foot rescue boat from the Coast Guard base. Neither they nor the Coast Guard were able to launch smaller boats because of the condition of the sea. Coast Guard did send a larger boat out, which eventually was able to spot the men at the end of the jetty.

Coast Guard was requested to send a helicopter to lift the 4 men off the jetty. Dain and Kevin made the call to walk out the jetty, find the men and assess their condition, then radio the GPS coordinates to the Helicopter. They were not sure how long the men would last in the 36-degree windchill, made worse by being wet, exhausted, and exposed. But the helicopter was rerouted to another call. A second helicopter was then dispatched and shortly after cancelled for equipment problems.

Dain and Kevin used a Swiftwater technique using their rope to cross the cut one at a time. They eventually found that swimming next to the rocks was faster than walking, although they kept bumping into underwater rocks because they couldn’t get too far from the jetty without being blown out to sea. They found them, but without air support they knew they would not be able to bring the victims to shore.

Fortunately, Beach Patrol has a number of full-time guards who watch out for each other. Despite wind gusts of up to 45mph, Jeff Mullin and Kevin Knight made the bold decision to run a jet ski, which won’t swamp or be blown over like a boat, out right by the rocks in the protected area. Eventually, with the teamwork of Fire, EMS, and Police, and after a heroic effort taking more than 3 ½ hours, everyone got back to shore safely.

These heroes took some risks to get everyone to shore, but it paid off. The sea did not claim any lives that night.

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

Operations

Here’s how Beach Patrol operates on a normal day:

7:15AM- “A Shift” Supervisor truck calls in service. As they patrol, they put up the appropriate colored flags at the 5 seawall locations, post the flag color and any special advisories on the website, report the rip current threat level to the National Weather Service Houston/Galveston Office. They also pick up a jet ski at our headquarters and bring it to 61st and sand in case we get emergency calls around that part of the island.

7:30AM- “A” shift lifeguards and dispatchers show up at the office. Dispatchers run through a series of morning checks while the guards run out on the beach for a 45-minute training session that includes both physical and mental practices. For example, they may swim, practice rescue board techniques, then run through hand signals or CPR.

8:00AM- Junior Lifeguards age 10 and 11 show up at either the beach or pool. They swim, have a classroom session, run out to the beach for beach exercises, come back up for class, and run back down to the water for another water session. They go back and forth from the classroom to the waterfront multiple times in their 4 hours session.

9:15AM- “A” shift guards are back from their workout, have been issued radios and flag bags, and head out to their towers. Once there they put up the two flags – one is the Beach Patrol logo and the other whatever the warning flag color of the day is. After that they check the water in their area to see where the danger spots like strong currents or holes are. They’ll do this again halfway through their shift because all can change quickly. These are more senior lifeguards, so they’ll end up doing lunch breaks once the later shift shows up at their towers. Each 4 towers is staffed by 1 “A” and 3 “C” shift guards.

11AM- “B” Shift Supervisors arrive and help patrol the beachfront since its normally getting busy and one truck isn’t enough to cover. A few guards come in this shift as well. On weekends 2 drive out west, pick up a UTV from the west end fire station and patrol the San Luis Pass.

11:45AM- “C” Shift Guards show up and go do their daily training on the beach. When they finish, some go to the towers and some stay up in Headquarters to clean before going out. When they all get out all 32 towers are covered.

1PM- Second class of Junior Guards shows up for their 4-hour session.

1:30PM- “C” shift of Supervisors shows up and, after checking trucks’ equipment, head out to cover all 6 zones. The “B” shift supervisor truck heads out to cover the 18 miles of west end.

5PM- A shift gets off work and the Junior Guards go home.

8:30PM C shift Guards off duty

9:30PM C Shift Supervisors off duty and late shift dispatchers leave

9:30PM- 7:30 AM- “On Call” Supervisor stands by to respond to emergencies.

Cold Front

Cold front after cold front have been rolling in. We are now in my favorite time of the year, with moderate temperatures, warm water, some surf, and variable conditions. But this comes with specific hazards.

Changing winds can take people by surprise. On the beachfront a switch to offshore wind can blow you offshore. Once there the waves are rougher and can prevent you from making it back in easily. Strong side-shore winds typically produce strong rip currents near any type of structure like a groin or pier. These rip currents dig deep troughs by the structure and can pull people out when they step off into the deep area. And of course, big thunderheads can roll in causing lightning, gusty wind, or even waterspouts.

The tower guards are not going to be back on the beach until March, but we do have our rescue trucks patrolling the seawall and beach parks. That said, you should be more cautious than usual and stay farther from structures and closer to shore. Also check the weather forecast before heading out to beach or bay. Be particularly careful in boats this time of year because things can happen quickly. Of course, as always, use a Coast Guard approved lifejacket while boating. If you have a small child or are a poor swimmer a lifejacket is always a good idea when in or around the water.

Our year-round crew has been out patrolling daily and will continue to do so throughout the winter months. But with fewer people on the beach there is more time to catch up on some maintenance. This week they’ve been working on getting signs back up that were knocked down in the recent high tides. We maintain over 300 signs up and down the beach front, and it’s a constant process keeping them up. Every time the surf or tides get unusually high we have to get out there with a water pump and reset the posts or we need to re-attach signs that were blown down. Of course, we have signs to warn about areas that are dangerous to swim in like the groins or the ends of the island. But we also have beach ordinance signs on the back of each tower and rip current and beach rule signs at the base of every staircase, beach park entrance, and paths that people use to access the beach on the east end. We even have signs to warn about underwater rocks and debris. And if there is a rip current that pops up unexpectedly in an open beach area, we have temporary sandwich board signs warning the public.

These signs require a lot of work to maintain, but we don’t have the resources, personnel, or ability to be everywhere all the time. At least the bilingual, iconic signs we place around the island give the public a chance to avoid dangerous areas when they see them. A sign will never replace a lifeguard, but they are an integral part of the safety net.

Change Overtime

A group of 17 stood in the sand outside of a green and white trailer at Stewart Beach. Their feet were so dark they had a greenish tint against the white sand because they worked with minimal sun protection. Walkie talkies were issued as they joked around and made plans for after work.

In 1983 we only had 17 lifeguards on staff. We made $2.75 an hour and worked 6-7 days a week. New guards moved around, but guards with more experience primarily worked one tower and were assigned the more challenging ones. There were no formal lunch breaks. Instead, you took a quick break if you felt no swimmers would get in trouble. Most of us brought our lunches. There was not enough sand on the seawall for people to use lots of the areas, so we only covered about a third of the groins. Most of the crowd was at Stewart Beach and Apffel Park (now “East Beach Park”). There was no formal lifeguard training academy, you learned from other guards as you went along. Because of the lack of coverage we made a ton of rescues, especially when working the mobile patrols. We also broke up lots of fights and dealt with many more drowning fatalities than we do now.

Stewart Beach was the heart of the beach life for us. Not only was that where we started and ended each workday, but things were booming. There were two huge clubs on the beach that had live rock music. Some of us worked as bouncers after our lifeguarding shift. There were bumper boats, go carts, two water slides, little vendor shacks on the sand, miniature golf, and more. A lot of us would go to the blues bar at one of the water slides after work and hang with the local crew, bikers, and whatever tourist was brave enough to wander in.

The changes from then to now are significant. We have about 100 more guards on staff and cover every groin, for many of which we provide a double shift and work till dark. Guards have a set lunch break and reasonable hours so they can stay sharp and attentive. A formal academy and daily training ensures consistency, professionalism, and reduced liability for the city. We also provide both patrols and emergency response 2/7/365. And we make over 200,000 preventative actions a year instead of waiting to react to a crisis.

So maybe its not as fun now as then. But now we have quick backup for the guards when they get into the life-threatening situation of making a rescue. We work in tandem in the trucks more of the time, so our Supervisors are able to watch each other’s backs. And we don’t leave the public unprotected during working hours.

The thinner you stretch your resources, the more risk for guards and the public. One important measure of success is, because of our level of resources, we now average, with 7 million tourists, 6 drownings instead of 18-25 annually.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

Late in the day on Sunday, September 29th two young women entered the water underneath the Pleasure Pier. It was a very rough day with red flag warnings and rip current advisories, and the beach was crowded with thousands of swimmers in the water. This late in the year we didn’t have enough guards to staff tower 25.

The two women stepped into a deep area caused by the interaction of the current and posts and were swept out by a strong rip current. They flailed in the water panicking. One was able to grab a barnacle encrusted post in a bear hug and keep herself above water. The other tried to make it to the next post and repeatedly tried to climb up, ripping the skin off her fingertips and getting sliced by the barnacles. She started to go under and began to “climb the ladder”, meaning she was actively drowning and ineffectively throwing her arms out in front of her to catch one more breath.

Supervisors Michael Lucero and Mary Stewart were both at tower 24 checking with the lifeguard, Matthew Sicilio, when they saw a familiar figure in a blue shirt waving them over. Carlos Guerra, one of our most active volunteer Wave Watchers was patrolling the area and spotted the two women in trouble. On the way the police dispatcher said they’d received multiple 911 calls and were sending the Galveston Marine Response group (fire, police, and EMS). They arrived to find a large crowd yelling and pointing but no one could actually see either of the two women.

Lucero grabbed his rescue fins and tube and ran under the pier as Stewart assumed “Incident Command”. She directed Lifeguard Matthew Sicilio to run from his tower at 24 and help Lucero. Lucero then “dolphin dove” to the east side and then used the same rip current that sucked the women out. But for him it was a way to get quickly away from shore. He looked back to see Carlos using Beach Patrol signals to direct him to the victims, who were under the pier and hard to spot. He found the first one hanging on the post and saw the second one trying ineffectively to latch on to the next post out. He asked the first woman if she could hang on a little longer. When she said she could and told him where her friend was, he swam farther out and got to the second woman just as she submerged for the final time.

Matthew Sicilio and long-time surfer Erich Schlegel swam out to help. Matthew ended up taking the second victim in and Erich helped make contact and then helped Lucero bring the first victim to shore. They turned the two women over the fire and EMS on shore as the police provided crowd control. One was transported to the Emergency room in stable condition.

This was really close. Many threads of our larger safety net had to come together to save these two women.

This Coming Year

We just finished the budget process for the Beach Patrol’s next year and I gave a short presentation on Beach Patrol in general, the coming year, and where we’re headed to our Board of Directors. I though selected parts of this might be of interest. I think it helps get the point across that we are not just a lifeguard service but an overall safety net with many different pieces all working together.

The mission of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is to provide professional lifeguard service to the City of Galveston’s beaches through the direct prevention of and response to aquatic accidents and through public education. We felt public education was a big enough part of preventing drowning deaths that it should be in the defining sentence about the service.

Annually we average 170,000 Preventions (moving people away from danger), 150 Rescues, 1,800 Enforcements, and 1,800 Medical Responses. The medical and enforcement responses are mostly cases of being able to filter calls for the police, EMS, and fire departments. If we treat minor medical emergencies or do things like settle disputes or enforce ordinances those are calls that the other departments don’t have to waste time and energy responding to. Its helpful that we have a very small in-house police department.

We routinely patrol 33 Miles of Beach but provide emergency response to over 70 Miles of Coastline all year. During 7 months of the year we proactively guard 9 miles of beach out of 32 lifeguard towers. In the summer we provide daily west end patrols and weekend patrols at the San Luis Pass. Just in the past 5 years we’ve taken on a San Luis Pass patrol on summer weekends, 7 day a week summer patrol of the west end, and guarding the new “Babe’s Beach” west of 61st.

We are involved in a multitude of community programs including the Junior Lifeguard Program, Water Safety School Outreach (26,000 kids this year), Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, Basic Water Rescue instruction for public safety and surf camp instructors, and the Galveston Marine Response Group. We are also enhancing operations with a couple of new enclosed fiberglass towers with coastal marine life wraps on them next year. All of this will be accomplished next year with a budget of only 3.1 million, 117 seasonal employees, and 14 fulltime employees who have lifeguard training plus the addition of Swiftwater Rescue, National Incident Management System certification, are Personal Rescue Water Craft Operators, Certified Tourist Ambassadors, EMTs, Red Cross/USLA Instructors, some are Peace Officers, and more.

This coming year we are focusing on a patient transport capable vehicle for the San Luis Pass to help get people off the sand to EMS units, growing our year round staff’s SCUBA capabilities and getting our new tower sponsorship program off the ground.

We also are focused on the establishment of sustainable levels of service within new budgetary constraints so we can make recommendations on what the minimum necessary are to prevent drowning rates from increasing. As we move into a future with increasing beach use, we need to address the need for growth with future beach nourishment projects, funding challenges, a marked increase during the shoulder season of fall and spring and even winter, increase in use of west end beaches, and creative funding solutions to help us target higher risk drowning populations.