Easter Weekend

I went for a run really early the other morning on the west end. This is the time of year that the beach is just perfect. The temperature is cool but not cold in the morning and the water is warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit. There are not many people on the beach on the weekdays but the weekends are in full swing. As I ran, I noticed some of that colored confetti that’s in the inside of plastic Easter eggs. Later that day, as I drove down the beach making a morning check, I noticed that same type of confetti on the Seawall beaches, at Stewart Beach, and way out by the South Jetty.

What is amazing is that right after this weekend, which brought hundreds of thousands of people down to spend time on the beach, there were so few signs that it even happened. I didn’t see any cans or bottles, trash, or signs of illegal campfires. Just little confetti that was too small for our Park Board Coastal Zone Management crews to pick up. And the city crews seem to have gotten all the trash off of pretty much any public space on the island as well.

Easter has gotten to be a bigger and bigger beach holiday over the past couple of decades. And just like other big holidays it takes a very large network of overlapping groups to handle a crowd that measures in the hundreds of thousands. This is particularly impressive when you consider Galveston’s population of 48,000, and that our support groups are, for the most part, designed to handle a small population.

As I drove from one end of the island to another, morning, day, and evening, I saw hundreds of dedicated Galvestonian workers.  There were cleanup crews working long hours, police security smoothly handling the parks and west beaches, parking ambassadors on the seawall and historical area, police, fire and EMS crews responding to hundreds of emergencies for locals and tourists. And let’s not forget all the people who worked restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and stores; or the staff of the hospital and all the emergency clinics that worked overtime to handle all that was thrown at them. Definitely takes a village!

All groups were busy including the Beach Patrol. We had that magic mix of crowds and current that keeps us moving. By the end of the weekend we’d moved 2034 people away from dangerous areas, mostly away from the groins where there are rip currents and drop offs. But we also moved people out of the water in the ship channel, away from areas that have underwater hazards, and closer to shore. We also handled a number of lost children, mostly at Stewart Beach Park, responded to a couple of serious medical emergencies and a number of minor ones, performed nearly 100 enforcements ranging from dogs off leashes to alcohol, glass, or fire violations, and helped well over 100 tourists with directions or information.

And the season is just beginning…

Causeway Rescue

The young man was in his early 20’s and was wearing a black suit and a black backpack. He was dressed for his own funeral as he stood in ankle deep water.

He had waded out near the causeway bridge. One of the best cops and nicest people you’ll ever meet, Alfredo Lopez, was talking to him in calm, reassuring tones, while standing nearby on the shoreline.

Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards TK Mills and Nikki Harclerode had raced to the causeway after receiving a call from the 911 dispatcher about a suicidal person under the causeway. They parked and TK grabbed a rescue board. He wound his way around Fire, EMS, and Police vehicles and personnel and slipped quietly into the water after the young man who was slowly walking deeper and deeper.

TK told me he was worried about what the guy might have in the backpack, but weighing all the factors decided to take the risk to enter alone, so as not to alarm the young man. As the guy moved farther away from Alfredo, TK began to speak to him calmly and quietly. All the other first responders watched from shore, Nikki and others ready to jump in if TK needed help.

TK started getting worried as the guy walked out to waist deep water, then to his chest, and finally all the way up to his neck. TK still continued the conversation, attempting to build trust, as he subtly positioned the rescue board in front of the guy. This kept TK close but blocked the man from going deeper. He still had hope that the guy would turn around on his own and walk back to shore. But as TK looked into his eyes and realized he wasn’t all the way present, which worried him even more. Suddenly the worst happened…

The guy stepped into a deeper spot and began to struggle. TK moved closer and attempted to pull him up onto the rescue board, but he resisted. They struggled briefly and TK was pulled off of the board. They man struggled a moment more and then slipped under water. TK reached underwater and grabbed him and pulled him up to where he could breathe. As soon as he caught his breath they struggled again. After the third time the man was completely exhausted. TK was able to get him up on the rescue board and climbed up behind him. The man put his head down and was unresponsive.

TK used this opportunity to quietly paddle slowly to shore. He took his time, careful not to splash water or make any noise so as not to get the man worked up. As he eased into the shallows, first responders got hold of the man and stood him up, walking him to shore to get the help he needed.

TK has worked for us off and on for many years, before and after serving his country. He started at 10 in our Junior Lifeguard program. I’m proud of him and how gracefully he handled this.

 

Wave Watchers Academy

Spring Break ended up being very “Spring Break-ish”. The weather ended up being absolutely perfect and last weekend the beaches were full. We scrambled to keep swimmers safe, getting to hundreds before they got themselves in trouble in the rip currents by the groins. There weren’t many crowd issues in town, but the party crowd hit the west end hard. The Galveston Police Department very busy dealing with a couple of incidents and diffusing various situations. As usual, they did an absolutely amazing job of dealing with potential problems in a professional way.

The Beach Patrol is so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we are involved in so many community programs, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, the Junior Lifeguard Program, our School Outreach Program, Senior Beach Walks, and more.

We are looking forward to our second annual Wave Watcher Academy. The training is a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Wave Watcher academy will run from April 16th-19th and will meet from 8-12 each morning. Current Wave Watcher volunteers will be on hand to teach and advise. All are welcome and there is absolutely no physical requirement. The first day will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, rip currents and general beach safety, “Code X” (witnessed drowning) procedures, victim recognition, and municipal ordinances related to the beach and water front. The second day will be dedicated to first aid and CPR specially tailored to the beach environment. The third will focus on tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training). Finally, on the fourth day, we’ll do a site by site visit of the “hot spots” for water safety and discuss in detail how our Wave Watchers can integrate into our operations.

Once through the academy Wave Watchers will be able to volunteer for various duties if they desire. They are able to help with our LCD (Lost Child Detail) on holidays, and join us for special events and competitions. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beach goers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other public safety groups. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew contact Tricia at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org . The class will cap at 20 and will be first come first serve.

I hope you will join us for a fun way to support a great cause!

Beach Season is Here!

It’s was so nice all week to see good weather and everyone out enjoying the beach. There’s always such a quick transition from winter’s empty beaches to spring. Seeing kids on the playground at Stewart Beach, teens playing Frisbee or throwing a ball on the shoreline, people fishing and bird watching, and families along the shoreline is a great reminder of how lucky we are to live on the coast.

Last Saturday we started working seasonal lifeguards from the towers. Leading up to that we had a Supervisor/Senior Lifeguard Recertification Academy, Dispatch Certification Academy, and we started our new Lifeguard Training Academy, which runs all week till Sunday. I’m always impressed with the men and women who choose to go through the academy or to work during Spring Break instead of spending the whole week hanging out with friends. Every year I’m impressed with how dedicated our lifeguards are and how much they believe in our mission to protect people that visit the beach.

Another group that is impressive is our “Wave Watcher” corps. We had a meeting last weekend to talk about how to improve the Wave Watcher Academy, which will be held April 16-19th. This is a volunteer group that works with the lifeguards and spots people that could potentially get in trouble. They help find lost kids, and generally assist in lots of ways. They’re not obligated to do anything after their training course other than keep their eyes open when they go near the beach. But many of them go way beyond. Join us if you have time! Info will be on our website and social media shortly.

The cold front that came through early this week dropped it back down from 70 to the mid 60’s. Those few degrees really cut down the number of people who are in the water. The guards have been busy moving swimmers away from the rock groins, especially since there’s been a lot of current running parallel to shore. But if the water was a few degrees warmer most of the people hanging out on the sand would have been in the water.

Spring Break has changed through the years. We’ve been through periods where this was the place to party for college and high school kids. That definitely still exists, but we’ve really become more of a family destination. Some of that is no doubt due to the excellent marketing that’s been done for the island, which promotes a family destination with lots of options that include eco-tourism, fishing, surfing, horseback riding, historical tours, shopping, and visiting amazing destinations like The Strand, Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn,  and the Opera House. Other reasons for this shift are an ever more responsive police department and increased security at the beach with more of a presence than they had in the past.

Mardi Gras really is the kick off for the new tourist year, but Spring Break is definitely the sign that the beach season is here! Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!

 

Spring Break Tryouts!

Spring Break is here! We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow (Saturday) morning at the City of Galveston Pool at Lasker Park at 2016 43rd starting at 7am rain or shine. Those who pass the swim, drug test, and interview will start the same day in the Lifeguard Academy and will be paid for their training time. Information is at www.galvestonbeachpatrol.com

Last week we left off at the end of part two of a 3 part column on lifesaving history in Galveston. We were talking about the late 70’s, when the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. High drowning rates became a civil and tourist issue and something needed to be done.

Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor and many others all contributed significantly. The result of multiple discussions was that the Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol with a start up grant from the Moody Foundation and annual funding of hotel tax funneled through the Park Board of Trustees (thank you Babe!), who also took over management of the beach maintenance and parks.. The formation of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) as a national organization and the modernization and expansion of the Beach Patrol all happened in 1980 at a conference at Texas A&M Galveston orchestrated largely by Dr. Jim McCloy. Through the USLA many lifeguard agencies helped Galveston to modernize the lifeguard service.

Vic Maceo was the Director of the Galveston Beach Patrol from 1983–2007. During his tenure, a formal lifeguard academy was implemented which eventually  included nearly 100 hours of rigorous training. We implemented USLA’s national standards, formed supervisory hierarchy, started our Surf Condition Flag System and became the first beach agency to use staggered shifts to increase coverage for the same money.

In 2007, Vic Maceo retired, passing the torch to Chief Peter Davis. Shortly after that, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol fell solely under the management of the Park Board of Trustees

Today, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an elite certified “Advanced Agency” by the USLA. We protect nearly 7 million beach visitors annually. We are the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston and certified as a first-responder agency through the Department of Health. A staff of over 130 includes lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. GIBP also has a Junior Lifeguard Program, with nearly 120 kids participating annually, and around 15 community based programs under its umbrella.

Each year we average 110,000 preventative actions, and 200 rescues. Last year alone we provided safety talks for over 23,000 school kids, responded to approximately 1,700 medical calls and made about the same number of enforcement actions.

Because we stand on the shoulders of so many dedicated predecessors, have such a great staff, and are supported by the Park Board, the City, and the Galveston community, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is now widely recognized as one the most professional and proactive lifeguard agencies in the United States.

Galveston’s Lifesaving History Continued

Last week I wrote about the history of lifesaving in Galveston up to the late 1800’s. I’d like to continue that history, but  that our first lifeguard tryouts will be next week on Saturday 10th at the city pool on 29th and seawall at 7am. Information can be found at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com . Spread the word!

When we left off, the United States was divided into several different Life Saving Districts and Galveston was assigned as the headquarters of the Ninth District. Through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year, saving swimmers from drowning. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for markings of sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.

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 4 main points of the island, including the so-called “Negro Beach on 29th street.” They each worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing  number of beachgoers. Though the number of lifeguards fluctuated throughout the year, the lifeguard group continued to flourish. By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Even though they consistently had between 20–30 lifeguards, they struggled with organization and stability, much like other beach lifesaving agencies across the United States.

The Early 80’s broke this trend. More to come…

 

Galveston’s Lifesaving History

Galveston’s lifesaving history is long and storied, much like Galveston herself.

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas. Galveston hosted the first post office (1836), naval base (1836), cotton compress (1842), a Catholic parochial school (Ursuline Academy, 1847), an insurance company (1854), and also the first gas lights (1856).

Galveston was in need of equipment to aid mariners who encountered problems. A national organization based out of the east coast, called the United States Life Saving Service, was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners.

This government agency gave a “Francis Life Boat” to the Collector of the Galveston Port, to be employed in cases of vessels in distress.

On June 2, 1857, the steamship Louisiana, which was full of furniture and lumber, caught fire 5 miles off the coast of Galveston. Due to poor housing and an inconvenient storage location, the then-current Francis Life Boat was not able to be used for rescue. Hundreds of Galvestonians stood on the shoreline in despair as they watched the ship burn and sink with its 35 helpless crewmen.

This event prompted citizens to petition the city for appropriate funds, not only to build a proper boat house, but also to mount the Francis Life Boat on a wheeled carriage for easier transportation. The Federal Government also supplied funds for two additional lifeboats, lifesaving equipment, and a permanent boathouse. Fifty-two volunteers submitted their names to the Mayor for support in creating the Galveston Life Boat Association.

It is thought that the equipment was destroyed when the Union captured Galveston in 1862 during the Civil War. When the war was over, no equipment was salvageable. The Life Boat Association no longer existed and any lifesaving efforts were at a halt.

In November 1875, another tragedy occurred when the steamship “City of Waco”, hailing from New York City, arrived in Galveston to unload its cargo and suddenly burst into flames. Strong winds and rough waters prevented any aid from nearby vessels in the harbor, leaving Galvestonians and sailors to watch in horrified awe as the City of Waco sank immediately. A memorial service at the Grand Opera House paid tribute to the 35 sailors who lost their lives in the tragedy and criticized the city for lack of appropriate means to come to their aid.

After this event, it was requested that the city build a lifesaving station on the island, in honor of those fallen men. The City received $200,000 from Congress to professionalize the Galveston organization. This money went to getting new equipment and structures for housing the lifesaving materials at the new life station’s location at Kuhn’s Wharf off 18th Street. This was the same year the lifesaving station was established at what is now the San Luis Pass and we’ve had lifesavers on Galveston continuously ever since, although the form that changed a few years later, following national and international trends.

(to be continued)

Swift Water

The first lifeguards were trying to spot shipwrecks and help the occupants off as best they could. Most of the work happened at night as sailing ships weren’t able to see hazards during the dark hours. It was cold and dangerous work, especially considering that very few people were able to swim at the time; and that included the “Lifesaver Men”.

The industrial revolution helped create a leisure class, who had time to recreate. “Bathing” at the beach became a national craze, and lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene. The idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on their own. They worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup. These days, when things go bad, help is on the way before the guard even hits the water. In the early days of recreational swimming, those kinds of resources were not possible economically or culturally. Our local Galveston lifeguard hero of the past, Leroy Colombo had the mantra of “One beach, one lifeguard”. It’s a testament to his physical and mental ability that he survived making over 1,000 rescues.

The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the effect that employ a  whole rescue “chain”. Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. It’s safer for the rescuers and more effective. It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizzazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard”.

Now Beach Patrol works in teams to the greatest extent possible. Our goal can be broken down with a simple mathematical equation. Our system is the number of victims equaling the number of rescuers plus one. Saving even one person alone is risky. For this reason we focus to such a large extent on preventing accidents instead of making rescues. And when we have to make them, we make them as a team when possible.

Teamwork doesn’t stop with the Beach Patrol. One of our most successful partnerships is with the other groups that respond to water emergencies and is called the Galveston Marine Response (GMR). Although the formation of the GMR was intended to address large scale aquatic disasters, a byproduct is increased efficiencies when responding to any water related emergency.

Swift Water Rescue and Urban Flooding response is an area all GMR groups help with. To further this end, this week the Beach Patrol sent three full time staff members to San Marcos to be certified as “Swiftwater Rescue Technicians”. This is a tough class involving hours and hours in swift water and flat water learning rescue techniques that we don’t use on the beachfront. They even do simulated searches and rope rescues at night. Painful and cold! But they will come back with a much widened skill set that will be a huge help next time it floods here.

Summer Time is Almost Here

With this cold weather it’s hard to believe that we’re on the verge of starting beach season. We’ve started our daily patrols and it’s only a month till our first lifeguard tryouts and academy, which will happen over Spring Break. Our full time crew has been working hard to get everything ready for the season. They just finished refurbishing all 32 of the lifeguard towers, we’re going live with a new and improved website, updated and revised the Hurricane and Tidal Threat Response Plan for the Park Board, and more. The next big project is to get all the missing and damaged signage up before people start swimming again in a few weeks. We’ve also started our Water Safety Outreach Program in the schools and are preparing to ramp up a number of community programs including Junior Lifeguards, The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, At Risk Kids Camp, Lifeguard Scholarship Program, etc.

The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network (SSN) is in its 15th year and has helped around 50 families through the early stages of the coping and grieving process. They have done such a wonderful job though the years of working with hotels, restaurants, consulates, and volunteer clergy, translators, mental health workers, to provide and invaluable service when tragedy strikes. This week was a big step in taking this program to the next level.

I joined Lieutenant Kara Harrison from the Beach Patrol, David Mitchell from the Jesse Tree, and Iris Guererra who is a volunteer for Jesse Tree, Survivor Support Network, and the Beach Patrol Wave Watchers Program. The four of us attended a 3 day certification course for individual and group crisis intervention, which is provided by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The course covers the basics on how to diffuse and debrief people who have been through traumatic events. It is designed to provide care for individuals and groups. It works for a range of people including everything from normal citizens to public safety professionals. There is, of course, quite a bit of current theory, but also a lot of practice sessions and role playing. That way when you get in the field you can more smoothly apply the principles of the class to normal life.

Another benefit of the course is that this is the same training foundation that our county critical response team has and will be a way to link with this great bunch of people. Having the Jesse Tree involved, along with other groups from the county, means we’re all talking the same language and can support each other when needed. A big part of the idea of critical stress intervention for public safety groups is that you try to have people outside of your normal rank structure conduct the sessions.

Of course Beach Patrol, with its 140 or so lifeguards has its own special needs since we deal with so many serious incidents annually. Building capacity for support of these brave men and women is invaluable in avoiding burnout and in keeping the workforce mentally healthy.

Leadership Training

As the 7 strangers sat in a circle around the table I briefly looked around and was surprised to see each person’s attention riveted on the speaker. The man in front of us was the team leader. He described a time in his life where he found his only son dead in the house. He then talked about the process of coping and how that eventually led to a career change and to working with groups like ours. When his 20 minutes ended, one by one, the group told their stories. The tragedies, challenges, and triumphs. After the leader was so forthcoming, we all felt obligated to refrain from holding back. After that session a weird thing happened. We formed some kind of bond and became a cohesive unit.

As we went through the 12-14 hour a day 7 day leadership course last week, we worked together. We supported each other and we were motivated to make sure we each pulled our weight in the group projects. It even extended to the larger group to some extent. It really made me think about the importance of connecting with all of our groups first on the personal level before taking care of the business at hand. How much more effective would we be if we didn’t waste time competing and posturing?

This strategy was the core of true leadership training. The goal of the course was to give us tools to lead in whatever capacity we had back at home. All were from some type of local governmental entities, so included city managers, department heads, public safety leaders at different levels, etc.

We’ve known for some time that the best results don’t come from the traditional top down, autocratic leadership model. We also know that the “millennial generation” doesn’t respond well to more traditional models. And in many of our worlds, millenials now comprise a significant percentage of the workforce. In my world they’re almost our complete workforce. But I was happy to see that the latest leadership theories don’t advocate losing the chain of command strategy so important to public safety groups in managing a crisis. I was also happy to see that something we’ve been moving towards in the Beach Patrol for some time is a big part of their strategy. The creation of what they called “micro businesses” targeting specific tasks such as strategic planning, non-emergency tasks, or areas outside of the normal day to day operations is a big part of employee engagement. And, time and energy spent on these areas outside of the normal hierarchy pays off exponentially in productivity.

We try to double down on training during these slower times for obvious reasons. This week I was in the Texas police chief leadership series, which, not surprisingly, focused on similar concepts.

I feel grateful for this training and want to commend both the Park Board and leadership for emphasizing the importance of progressive training that will help all departments operate more efficiently and productively.