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.

New Era of Rescue Services?

Recently some footage of what was reported to be the first real water rescue made by a drone at Lennox Head, New South Wales, Australia went viral. There were two swimmers just outside the surf line kind of floating around. The footage was from the drone itself as it dropped this package from maybe 100 feet up. Upon impact this big sausage looking thing inflated. Two swimmers swam over to it and floated on it back to shore. At one point it looked like a wave knocked one of them off it, but the guy swam easily back to it and rode it in. The announcer talked about how it was the first rescue by drones.

Drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite awhile now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly the on a set schedule as shark spotters. The operators have to be trained as pilots since they’re a governmental agency. Newport Beach, which is pretty cashed up, flies them three times a week for a 20 minute flight. If they see a shark bigger than a certain size they increase the schedule until it moves out of the area. There’s actually an Australian company that has gotten into them pretty heavily for mountain rescue that have been working up prototypes on the beach. The one I’ve seen is called the “Little Ripper”.  The mountain rescue ones have been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them as they wait for help to arrive on foot. But the ocean has been more of a challenge.

Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mile an hour winds. The Little Ripper is apparently a bit better in flight time and can fly in slightly higher winds. It also can be equipped with night vision. But even so, that’s not much good in search and recovery operations that typically take place during pretty extreme conditions over large areas, requiring much longer flight times.

This “rescue” was the byproduct of a $430,000 government funded program and it was on a test flight by a happy coincidence. It looks like the two swimmers were not actually in distress, but maybe they were tired. They were able to swim to the tube a couple of times. It looks like had they actually been drowning they couldn’t have made forward motion to grab the float.

I think the day will come where there will be drones available that may be able to augment beach lifesaving programs in very real and cost effective ways. Particularly in remote locations or for search and recovery operations. For now they’re a great way to get a camera in the air for short periods of time under the right conditions. It appears for a while longer we’ll be droning on about drones every time something like this goes viral.

Mind Over Matter

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

I hate the cold. I’d be happy if it never dipped below 80 degrees year round. I have a lot of friends through the International Lifesaving Federation from all over and I mentioned how cold it’s been here to  the head of the lifesaving federation of Norway and to the Executive Director of the Danish Lifesaving Federation. Big mistake. Telling northern Europeans it’s cold in Galveston, Texas is a little like telling someone from Cairo that the Strand is “really old”.

The reply from Norway was a picture showing a road dusted with snow with what looks like a couple of inches on the sides. It says, “In the USA- Close all the schools there’s no way we can go to school in this weather!” Then it’s followed by another picture of a snow covered road between what looks like huge ice cliffs on both sides. The caption for this one reads, “In Norway- Kids if you do well on this test I promise we can take a bath in the lake, your dad will break the ice for us.”

As if I wasn’t already feeling like a whiner, I then got my buddy’s reply from Denmark. Erik told me how they’d gotten to feeling pretty cooped up since the days only had about 7 hours of daylight and it had been snowing several feet, so they hadn’t seen the sun in a number of days. He and his fellow lifeguards decided to go out for some “training”. They went to a nearby lake, cut a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, then put on really thick wetsuits and dive gear. Dropping into the water with a soccer ball, they inflated their buoyancy compensators so they floated up like corks. Standing upside down on the bottom of the ice they played underwater soccer. He didn’t mention alcohol, but I can only imagine those big Vikings coming up periodically to down goblets of ale between points.

It’s all relative. Those replies remind me how good we have it here where we whine about weather that drops a little below freezing. But there’s a deeper level. A lot of things we experience as discomfort or as an inconvenience can be pretty enjoyable once you shift your mindset. With the right clothes almost any cold is comfortable. Or if you shift your mind further you can redefine what “comfortable” is. An older gentleman that many of you know runs every day on the seawall early in the morning. He is always wearing shorts no matter what the temperature. I passed him early one of those cold mornings. As I passed I thought to myself that he must be suffering. They he gave his usual smile and wave and continued his slow, steady pace down the wall looking the farthest thing from cold or uncomfortable as possible.

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

Cold Winter Days

I had a suggestion from a friend this week to write about how we deal with the cold water and air while working in the beach environment. It’s an interesting topic since even when we’re building towers, working on signage, or even working in the office we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to enter the water, potentially for prolonged periods, if an emergency drops.

The water last week dropped into the 40’s, which is no joke. Water in the 40’s can kill you pretty quickly if you are not prepared and don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, we buy our full time staff good wetsuits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes in 48 degree water without a decent wetsuit.

There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wetsuit and you’re good in any temperature of water. This isn’t at all true and there are several variables that go into effect when you’re doing rescue work in cold water, such as body mass, how accustomed you are to the cold, etc. Even so, probably the most important thing is having the right wetsuit for both the air/water temperature, duration, and for the activity. But even with the right suit, the first thing that happens when you jump in is freezing cold water slips into the suit, taking your breath away. If you don’t know what happens next you may panic. Fortunately, after just a few minutes that water in your suit is heated by your body and forms a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as insulation and actually keeps you warm despite the cold water outside the suit, and to a more limited extent against cold wind above the water.

For example if you’re going scuba diving in 50 degree water you will need a very thick wetsuit, maybe 6 millimeters thick with boots, gloves, and a hood. In that same water temperature, for a strenuous rescue or swim session taking 45 minutes or less you’d want more flexibility in your suit and you’d be generating a great deal more body heat, so you might be happy with something that is only 3 millimeters thick. Some suits are designed for swimming with flexible areas around the shoulders and others are better for surfing with areas around the hips that are more flexible. But all are way better than just jumping in!

Originally wetsuits were made of rubber and designed by a west coast aerospace engineer (who was a surfer) for the military. But soon after the use of neoprene with its flexibility and closed cells trapping air inside the material made it affordable and practical for surfers and lifeguards and later for all types of water sports enthusiasts.

As we continue to see more beach use during the cold months we’d be lost without wetsuits to help us protect increasing numbers of beach users.