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

 

Disco Dog Party

Some of you may remember the gas rig that was the closest platform off the beach back in the 80’s and 90’s. Before they took it down, in a wilder era, Beach Patrol made good use of both that and the old light house on the end of the south jetty.

I had a Hawaiian Sling, which is basically a long stick with a stretchy band on one end and prongs on the other end to catch fish with. None of my friends had boats to get to the far rigs, but it was an easy paddle to the close rig. We’d go out there on a kayak, paddleboard, or our Dory (2 person rowboat) and catch fish to eat or to put in our saltwater tank. After spending a couple of hours in the water we’d climb up on the rig for lunch. We’d jump off the top a few times, then see who could make it to the bottom and come up with sand (about 40 feet or so).

Beach Patrol got bigger, and we started getting more organized. We’d pick a good day and a group of us would swim out to the rig. A round trip swim could be up to around 4 miles. One year everyone that made the swim got highly coveted “Aqua Posse” t-shirts.

Beach Patrol is primarily made up of college and high school kids who have way too much energy and brain power to sit still in a tower for an eight hour stretch. Those slow days mean lots of time to think up new and ever more ridiculous schemes. We had a competition where 5 teams of 5 had to go to the rig and bring back a photo essay of an “event”. No motors allowed. The theme of the skit was drawn from a traditional lifesaving pith helmet.  At the end we had a party where we displayed the results and voted on the winning team. The winners that year had a mafia theme. The photos showed a guy taken by guys and girls in pin striped suits and cardboard tommy guns to the rig. He was “tied up” and thrown off the platform wearing fake cement shoes to “swim with the fishes”.

Of course, nothing can hold a candle to the annual “Disco Dog Party” at the lighthouse. No motors or people without costumes allowed. Even though I’m sure the statute of limitations is over, it’s probably best if I don’t go into too many details. I will however confess to strobe lights and hotdogs. And a guy paddling up during the night to some shark fishermen. Wearing chains and full disco regalia, he asked, “Any of you guys seen a disco party out here?” Ended up the man in the boat was a State Rep who made a few calls. That was a tough one, explaining to my boss’s boss, the Sheriff, what we were doing out there. Me (and my career) are lucky he had such a good sense of humor.

SHARKS

Nat Geo ran a documentary story this week about sharks and played an interview I did with them a while back. Whenever Shark Week rolls around people start seeing things in our water  and reporting them. They’re almost always a dolphin’s pectoral fin since you really wouldn’t spot a shark from the shoreline very often, but people can still get pretty worked up about anything to do with sharks. There are a lot of sharks in the Gulf and they capture the imagination.

But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 7 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty favorably… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations, and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example, in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz, I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal seen from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them, they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while leaking blood- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution, you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer

Pre 4th of July

Hard to believe we’re to the 4th of July. Weather permitting, this could be a massive event, seeing as each weekend since the beach season started seems like a holiday weekend in both the best and worst of ways. Galveston needed our tourists back, and the hotel occupancy rates are just one of several indicators that they’re back, and back with a vengeance! But the corresponding workload on the emergency services and tourist related businesses has been pretty overwhelming.

Just to give a snapshot of the magnitude of workload my staff alone has been facing I’d like to share one important statistic over the past three years. “Preventative actions” are actions that essentially keep people out of harm’s way. Many of them involve moving people away from piers, groins, or anywhere else there are rip currents or tidal currents. But they can also encompass things like swimmers out too far, people in danger of being struck by lightning, etc. It’s generally a result of the combinaton of water conditions and crowds, and is probably the best indicator of how much work our staff puts in. Last week in 2019 we made 8,121, and the equivalent week last year the number climbed to 10,202. This year, the number was 17,506.

With this increased work on a staff that only recently got to 75% of our target number, it’s even more important that you and yours take safety precautions when you go to the beach. The United States Lifesaving Association has recently updated its safety recommendations and we have adapted ours to match that. So when you’re out there, please remember to Swim Near a Lifeguard, Learn to Swim, Learn Rip Current Safety, Never Swim Alone, Designate a Water Watcher, Alcohol and Water Don’t Mix, Feet First Water Entry, Life Jackets Save Lives, Observe Signs & Flags, and Beat the Heat & Block the Sun. An explanation for each of these can be found at www.usla.org. We can’t stress enough that swimming near a lifeguard gives you that extra layer of protection and avoiding swimming near structures like piers and groins greatly reduces your chances of getting caught in a dangerous rip current. In addition to these, in Galveston remember you should also avoid swimming at the ends of the island, because of the strong tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and Ship Channel.

All of us will be out working, along with our network of other public safety groups, Galveston Marine Response, Wave Watchers, County CERT volunteers, and all the other groups that make it happen. And our Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network is on standby just in case we need them.

There’s nothing we like more than to see people come to the beach and make memories by spending time with friends and family. I love seeing all the kids playing in the water, and the smell of Texas BBQ and fajitas being cooked by all the families and friends spending time together. So have fun, be safe, and don’t check your brain at the causeway.

 

Photo by Travis Walser on Unsplash

https://unsplash.com/photos/yqGcu5D63Yc?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

Busy Summer Time

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. As I write this, I’m just back in from responding to an impressive 3 person rescue by Captain Pryor and Lifeguard Martinez at 39th street. Looks like one of two kids may have stepped off a sandbar into deeper water and his dad and sister tried to help him and they ended up all having trouble. Fortunately, Lifeguard Martinez showed up just in time for his shift and Captain Pryor was right there with his response. And this is just one of many similar incidents that have happened recently. I for one will be really happy when we get into a calmer water pattern as we get into the summer season.

We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and on holidays, County Emergency Response Team we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.

We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 14th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented 5th academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the UTMB Fieldhouse pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. And don’t forget our lifeguards just got a pay bump, so starting pay will be $14 an hour plus potential increases for being bilingual or having an EMT. Join our family!

Very soon we’ll start seeing an increase in storms that threaten the gulf. This is a good time for a reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. Good excuse for a mini vacation.

Hope to see you on the beach!

Memorial Weekend Wrap Up

The little girl sat in the sand with her plastic bucket and shovel. She was completely absorbed in her mission of shoveling sand into the bucket, pouring it back onto the ground, then repeating the process. Stewart Beach was packed. From a distance it looked like living, multicolored moss covered it completely. The girl had happily found a clear space to pursue her mission.

Unfortunately, the clear space was right in the middle of the emergency lane that runs from East to West. There are also corridors that run from the parking lot to the lifeguard towers. Working with park staff and the security detail, we struggle to keep them clear on busy days. But the lanes provide not only a clear spot for us to access people during an emergency, but also provide safe passage for beach service, vendors, and park staff working hard to keep the beaches clean.

I approached the girl, explaining she was in the “road” and asking her if she’d be willing to move to the other side of the poles. I received an emphatic “NO!”, as did the Lifeguard Supervisor for the area. Fortunately, her mom swooped into the rescue. The little girl smiled at me, bouncing up and down in her mother’s arms, as she was whisked away.

About an hour later, a mile and a half down the beach, I got flagged down by a couple who had discovered a lost child walking down the beach. Same girl, same smile. But now we were friends, so she rode happily with me back to her mom, punching random buttons in my truck that delighted her when lights went on or sirens blared. I asked her if she got lost a lot, and she replied, “All the time”. Shocking.

My new friend was one of 35 children we reunited with their families over the Memorial Weekend. Official beach season opened with a bang. We also moved 19,413 people from dangerous areas, responded to 55 medical calls, made 11 rescues, worked 6 possible drowning calls (one of which resulted in a fatality), made 186 enforcement actions, provided 354 tourists with information about the island, and gave water safety information to 4,238 people. This doesn’t include all the good work done by the other public safety groups, the security program for the beach parks, and the staff from the parks, parking, and Coastal Zone Management. One of our guards, who looked like an exhausted prune after spending about 3 or 4 cumulative hours of his 9 hour shift in the water moving swimmers, told me he couldn’t be responsible for what happened the next time someone shouted “easy money” or “Baywatch” at him.

I’m really proud of how well our staff handled the weekend. Especially considering many of them worked solo in towers, unlike previous years when they were doubled up for much of the day on holiday weekends.

If any of us had doubts about Galveston’s tourism bouncing back, I think last weekend took care of that!

Memorial Weekend Safety

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. We are a little light on new guards, but enough dedicated experienced guards are coming back and working the holiday. All 32 of our towers will be covered, all vehicles will be patrolling, and our 11 new candidates are graduated and ready to go.

This weekend will see hundreds of thousands on the island. But we’ll be ready for whatever madness this weekend brings, as will our partners in the Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Police, Fire, EMS, Sheriff Office, County CERT Team, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well-being.

It’s been a rough Spring on the Texas coast, so play it safe. So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:

Swim near a lifeguard– every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection though, and you are still responsible for your own safety.

Stay away from the rocks– where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.

Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island– The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.

Don’t swim alone– your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.

Designate a Water Watcher– who has the sole responsibility of keeping an eye on your group while they’re in the water.

Don’t dive in headfirst– to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.

Observe warning signs and flags– ours are all bilingual and use icons.

Non-swimmers and children should use properly fitted Coast Guard approved lifejackets when in or around the water- and everyone should wear a lifejacket when boating.

Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.

Take precautions from the heat and sun– such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.

Remember not to “Check your brain at the causeway” and maintain situational awareness.

Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Remember the soldiers who made our way of life possible while taking a well-earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!

Rock Training

Gray overcast sky with dark clouds scudding overhead. The howling wind whipped the beach water into a frothy, choppy maelstrom punctuated with white caps. Waves broke over the barnacle and algae covered rocks.

A group picked their way gingerly across the higher rocks, which were only covered in white, foamy water intermittently. One person, older and moving confidently up and down the rocks, leapt from a higher rock, tucking his rescue tube firmly against his body in midflight, and landed smoothly on top of one of the larger waves. He took a couple of strokes, rolled to the side, and smoothly slid swim fins on. Swimming back to the rocks at an angle against the rip current, he motioned for the first of the lifeguard candidates to follow, as he rose and fell with the swell.

The first brave soul moved towards the rock the instructor had jumped from. Holding her rescue tube and excess strap in the hand that was opposite from the direction the waves came from she ensured the waves wouldn’t smack the tube into her and cause her to slide across the barnacle covered rocks. Keeping her center of gravity low, but her butt off the rocks, she kept her balance while letting the energy of the smaller waves pass beneath her. She moved lower quickly before a larger wave could knock her off her feet. She was visibly nervous, but you could almost see her force herself to focus and tune out the voice telling her all the ways this could go bad. A wave approached. She knew at this point she had no choice. Once you’re low enough to jump, a decent sized wave will scrape you all across the rocks if you freeze. She didn’t. She jumped a little high and landed too close to the jump point. She didn’t get the tube flat against her body, causing her hands to sink too low on impact. But her head was just right- tilted back with her face forward.  She timed the jump a little early and landed in the whitewater but overall, it was a pretty good first jump. And practicing in decent sized surf, although it looks scary, has a much greater margin of error.

The whole group jumped several times under the watchful eye of instructors who both guarded their safety and gave info on what they did wrong and right. They’d already practiced the technique over and over in the pool. We make sure candidates are comfortable with the basics before throwing them into the surf and all the additional variables it adds. The idea for this exercise, and many others we teach, is to practice to the point where you can perform skills effortlessly, without conscious thought.

When all the rescue elements are internalized to the point that they’re automatic, you’re ready. You’ll do what you practice in a crisis, even under stress. You need a clear head to problem solve whatever new complications are thrown at you by the real deal. And something unplanned always happens.