Flags

We’re just over a month away from beach season, believe it or not. Soon we’ll be putting out all kinds of information about how to stay safe when visiting the beaches. One area that’s important to refamiliarize yourself with is our Flag Warning System (FWS).

The FSW advises beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower hoists the appropriate flags for the day, and they also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background information on them:

Green: Conditions are calm, but swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re 100% safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that beachgoers should use caution when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. It is very important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should enjoy the water along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates potential problems with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays, or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags are used in combination with other flags. Every lifeguard trains before every shift and we are the “Guinea Pigs” to test the waters If we get several stings while swimming, the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday, so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership in place with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health District’s Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain places so these flags, when flown, may just be applicable in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Dolphins

For the past couple of years, the idea that we are communal animals has become more and more evident. The pandemic has really shown us how important it is for us to interact in groups. Even the most reclusive person needs that human contact that is such an important part of our essential being.

That cooperative spirit allows us to accomplish incredible things. We are most successful when we work together to accomplish goals. Often in this column we’ve looked at cooperative programs that relate to the beachfront where different people or groups have combined efforts and resources to create an outcome that is much greater than each individual part. Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, Galveston Marine Response, all the various groups that protect, clean, maintain, and provide services on the beachfront, are all examples of this concept.

To me, one thing that is especially awe inspiring is when we not only work together to help people, but when people work together to help our fellow animals. Not much demonstrates this concept better than the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

This amazing group of mostly volunteers coordinates rescues of dolphins and whales along the Texas coast. We as lifeguards often have the privilege to work alongside our partners in the Coastal Zone Management department of the Park Board to help save stranded animals, and to manage the care of their bodies when they don’t survive a stranding.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Network is dedicated to the Conservation of Marine Mammals through Rescue and Rehabilitation, Research and Education. The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) provides a coordinated response to all marine mammal strandings along the Texas coastline.

Most of what we see in our area are bottle nosed dolphins swimming, playing, eating, and occasionally will wash up on the beach.  From time to time a tourist will mistake their dorsal fins for a shark’s and panic. Normally you don’t see shark fins from shore, but a shark has a triangular fin and dolphins have a curved fin that rakes back. Dolphins are incredibly intelligent with larger brains and more complicated language than we humans possess.  They are even more communal than we are and are usually in small groups called pods swimming so close together that they often graze each other. Using echolocation, they are so aware of each other in the water that they often coordinate their movement to the point where it seems they have one mind. Being air breathing mammals stranding themselves when sick, injured or dying is a way to avoid drowning.

They often come up to their human counterparts who are swimming, surfing, boating, or fishing. It’s a bit unnerving to be in the water and have something so large and powerful come up and stare at you out of an eye that radiates curiosity and intelligence. But I’ve never heard of them injuring a human and there are plenty of stories of them helping us. So maybe the wonderful work of the TMMSN is a small way of paying them back.

 

 

Please visit dolphinrescue.org/rescue for more information.

  • The first thing you can do to help a marine mammal in need of rescue is to call the TMMSN 24 hour hotline at 1-800-9MAMMAL (1-800-962-6625).
  • Dolphins and whales do not usually wash up on our beaches unless they are sick, injured, or orphaned, so it is important NOT to push them back into the water.

Coastal Zone Management

The world is asleep. At 4am the sanitation truck pulls out of the Park Board Coastal Zone Department lot and hits the beachfront, working by headlights along an empty beach.

By the time the traffic starts getting heavy they’re usually gone. At 6 the beach crews head up to the beachfront to hand pick the trash off the beach. They are comprised of full-time staff members, but in the summer months they bring in 15-20 contract laborers a day to augment the normal crews and run two trash trucks. They also go from 5 eight hour shifts a week, to 4 six-hour shifts and two eight-hour shifts. Additionally in the summer they run an afternoon crew on the seawall that tips cans and cleans both sides of the street. Meanwhile the mechanics breathe life into the machines and other workers do projects at “the yard”, and the crew rallies for various special events on and off the beach throughout the year.  During the summer, there’s a night squad that runs the beaches picking up the abandoned canopies that tourists leave behind. The work never ends.

The past couple of years have brought new challenges because of the marked surge in beach use. Previously a trash truck was dumped out every 2-3 days. Now both trucks they run in summer are dumped daily. The sheer tonnage they pick up annually is mind boggling, and now its more than doubled.

These men and women work hard. By the time most of the world is prying the gook out of their eyes and getting that first cup of coffee, they’ve already gotten through half a workday. And they do it in crazy hot, cold, rainy, or sand-blasting windy weather.

Right now, they’re taking advantage of the “slow” time to fix bollards at the beach access points, rejuvenate the recycle bins and port-a-let enclosures, and straightening signage along the beach. They put up the holiday decorations downtown, worked the Dickens and Biker Rally events, and are doing all kinds of smaller projects.

I’ve had the privilege of working alongside a lot of the Coastal Zone Management Department crew for years, and they never cease to amaze me with the pride they take in the job and the amount of work they can muster when the need arises. They’ve had a good thing going there for decades and that translates into efficiency and hard work and clean beaches and money coming into our economy.

At the center of it all is Larry Jackson. Larry is a good manager, great person, and has an interesting past. He spent years making a living from fishing as a commercial fisherman, a guide, and as the host of a fishing show. He even used to have a giant tank that he’d bring around on a gooseneck trailer for special events, business openings, and fishing lessons.

We’re so lucky to have Larry and his incredible crew.  If you’re up early enough tell them how much their labor of love means to the island!

New Boat

As the sun touches the horizon, a stiff wind pushes spray off the peaks, causing them to take on a copper tone. A lone jet ski churns through the choppy water searching for a missing swimmer, as we attempt to locate what may be a missing swimmer, pelican, piece of wood, or a float being pushed out by the offshore wind.

This is a scenario that plays itself out multiple times each year. Often, we don’t have confirmation from anyone on the shore who is missing anyone, no unoccupied vehicles near the scene, and no indication that anyone left articles on the beach before going out for a dip.

The judgement required to make the appropriate decisions about when to continue searching into the night, discontinue the search, or modify the search using different resources is very sophisticated and requires both experience and critical thinking skills. We always err on the side of caution when human lives are potentially at stake, but we also must consider the human and equipment resources at our disposal.

Evening calls are particularly difficult because we rely so heavily on jet skis. Our staff is highly trained on them, and we have them deployed all over the island. They’re powerhouses in surf, have a very shallow draft for the many shallow bay calls, and can be beach launched. But as versatile as they are, by law they can’t run at night. Night calls can be more technical as well, requiring GPS, depth gauge, both running and spotlights, and at times radar. For this we need a proper boat, which requires quite a bit of additional training.

Each rescue truck is driven by a supervisor, who is certified as a “Personal Rescue Watercraft (PRWC) Operator. All our “wet seats”, mostly comprised of Senior Lifeguards, are certified as “PRWC Rescuers”, which means every truck has a jet ski rescue team on board. These could be full time or seasonal employees, although almost all our supervisors work full time.  But because of the training time required to competently operate the boat, only our full-time employees operate our 22-foot rigid hull inflatable boat, which is very similar to the ones the Coast Guard uses. So, in the scenario we opened with, if we needed to continue the search into the night, we’d have to get our boat launched somewhere with a proper boat ramp and get staff on board who were trained in boat operations. Hard to do if it’s a busy summer weekend with several emergencies happening at once.

Recently we purchased a piece of equipment that will help fill this gap. This new watercraft has a rigid hull with inflatable sides and a cut out in the back for a jet ski to fit. Once the jet ski is secure, it becomes the engine. It drives, handles like, and requires the training time of a jet ski. It also has the advantages of a 20-foot boat, while still operating in less than a foot of water.

Adaptable solutions providing for a quick rescue response.

Australia and Surf Clubs

Australia is Mecca for Surf Lifeguards.

Lifesaving in Australia started around the same time as it did in the rest of the developed world. The old system of “Lifesaver Men” who stayed for weeks at a time in lighthouses looking for ships that wrecked along the shoreline began to transition to modern lifesaving with the advent of a leisure class around the turn of the century.

“Surf bathing” became popular in Europe, Australia, the US, and parts of Asia around the same time. The fad spread rapidly. At first this required the use of “surf bathing machines” that were rolled out into the water so people could change and take a dip without being seen by the crowd. By 1905 people were flocking to the ocean to take part in this new fad. Here in Galveston the beach was already really popular, but the difference was now thousands took to the water, despite little or no swimming ability. It was a time for rebellion against Victorian mores, with the woolen bathing “costumes” showing more and more skin.

The beaches around Sydney, Australia can have heavy surf and horrible rip currents. As people realized the danger of this new craze, there was a need for protection. The first volunteer surf lifesaving club was formed in 1907. As the beach and swimming fever grew and spread across the continent, so did the system of volunteer clubs.

The difference in Australian beaches vs. places like Galveston or other important US beach destinations was and is that 90% of the inhabitants of the continent live within a few miles of the coast. The surf club served many functions. It was a social club, gym, and a way to volunteer for the community. If you joined a surf club, you could stay there, eat there, and you had a readymade social set. The beach everywhere is a great social equalizer where social status in other parts of society doesn’t matter. After the wars, soldiers could find the type of discipline and structure they were accustomed to which helped many readjust to normal society. Above all, they provided a venue to serve in a positive and fun way.

Today the Australian surf club fills the niche of an American health club, and a large percentage of the population are members. Typically, you have a place to exercise and many offer food and drink to the public, with a requirement to take “lifesaving patrols” once or twice a month. Instead of lifting weights and going to spin aerobics, you may take a swim and go for a surf ski paddle. Competitions are a regular event with those who don’t race helping to officiate or support in other ways. Since practically the entire country is involved the depth of field ensures the highest level of performance. The Aussies almost always take gold in the international lifesaving competitions.

The Galveston Beach Patrol has a surf club modeled after the Australian model. If you are a swimmer you may be interested. Information is available on our website.

photo courtesy of ILS (Facebook)

One Beach One Lifeguard

The small 5-year-old, brown skinned, dark haired girl played in the sand with her little sister on the beach. Their fully clothed mother and grandmother laid out a tablecloth and set the china place settings out with well practiced movements. It was a summer day in 1943 at the beach by Murdoch’s Bathhouse.

Barbara, the older of the two, looked off and spotted someone. Smiling, she asked if she could go visit her “friend”. Her mom, Alberta Stevens, said she could but to “hurry back and don’t bother him too much”. She ran as fast as her little 5-year-old legs could carry her up to the lifeguard chair and looked up to the mountain of a man sitting up there. He waved her up smiling. As she started to climb, he reached down and picked her up, tossing her into the air while she giggled. She snuggled into his lap as he kept a watchful eye on the swimmers. It was a calm day with light crowds, and both sat for a while comfortably relaxed.

After a time, she turned to him so he could read her lips and said, “Mr. Colombo, why doesn’t anyone ever help you?”  He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and held up his index finger. “One beach…” little Barbara said, as he then pointed to himself with his thumb and then held up his finger again. “…one lifeguard!” she squealed laughing, as she always did at this game.

Of course, I took a bit of “artistic license” here since it happened way before that little 5-year-old grew up and gave birth to me, but it’s based on stories Mom told me and a popular saying about Colombo that’s been passed down in beach lore. It does, however, exemplify a basic difference in lifeguarding philosophy (and public safety philosophy) that’s changed in relatively recent times.

Back when recreational swimming first became a “craze”, and modern 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. Rightfully so, since they generally worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup. When things go bad in the water it happens quickly, so if help arrives in time it would have to already be on the way before trouble started. In Colombo’s day, those kinds of resources were not a possibility economically or culturally. Someone of his swimming ability was the exception to the norm and that’s partly why he was so special.

The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the extent that we look at the whole rescue “chain”. Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. 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”.

Photo courtesy of Signing Savvy
YOUR SIGN LANGUAGE RESOURCE
signingsavvy.com

 

Bikes and Training

Whether you’re hunkering down with the groceries you bought before the crowds descended or out in the mix reveling in one of the largest events of this type anywhere, its hard not to notice its Biker Rally Weekend. I personally am a fan despite the inconvenience when moving around. I grew up riding as a kid on motocross style bikes, and rediscovered road bikes later as an adult. And as a professional people watcher I love all the different subcultures of the biker world out there.  Plus, the biker rally crowd typically don’t spend a lot of time in the water or driving their expensive bikes on the sand itself. We assist EMS and Fire with medical calls and help GPD a bit with the crowds, but it’s not a 4th of July kind of thing.

This week we started reducing our beach coverage somewhat and diverted some of our staff each day to the big job of tower refurbishment and repair. Considering weather and training breaks, this is scheduled to be a two-month job. We’ll also be focusing some training time on our typical operational winter training which includes medical, law enforcement, boat operations, and SCUBA training.

This winter is unique in that we’re going to focus our energy not only on external operational skills, but also internal training. We’re a hybrid organization in so many ways. We’re a public safety group that specializes primarily in ocean rescue and medical response, but also do a fair amount of code enforcement through both our peace officers and non-sworn staff. Most importantly, we have a lot of seasonal workers that aren’t part of the traditional public safety culture, have employees with over 50 years difference in ages, and a good mix of gender and ethnicities. Its critical that all these people work in a supportive environment in relative harmony, so that we can put maximum effort into protecting swimmers and responding to emergencies. And we all need to be able to communicate in a way that is respectful and isn’t misinterpreted. So, we are integrating training in intercultural competency, alcohol awareness, and in a program we started last year targeting resiliency for first responders. We’re also stepping up the training we’ve traditionally provided in leadership, workplace harassment, and other areas, and have formed a diverse committee to monitor culture throughout the organization.

In our lifeguard academy we stress the importance of a strong body, mental preparation through a well-developed and practiced skill set, and strength of spirit. With the first two we’re pretty adept at teaching and enforcing the practice necessary. But, although we allude to the importance of a strong spirit, we didn’t really have the tools to teach it effectively. But this new training will help us teach our staff to better support and take care of themselves and each other, so we can better take care of the public.

And despite our differences, our staff is incredibly united in the desire to be the best we can be to keep people safe.

Visit Galveston

Cooling Down

Traditionally, we always look at Halloween as the point where the water is too cold to see much activity. That has gone out the window with so much else, but it is a marker that things are starting to cool down. When the seasons change, it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s instead of the 80’s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

We’ve still been busy, particularly on the weekends. Having our seasonal lifeguards, who work in the towers, gone had meant our Full-Time crew has had to step it up, which they’ve done. They’re having a competition to see who can put the most miles on their vehicles as they patrol. Without the towers, keeping moving is the name of the game so we can keep those swimmers out of the rip currents near the rocks.

As a lifeguard told me a while back, the end of the season is a kind of “bittersweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work, it’s a relief for them to get out of the “thunder dome”. But they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense and so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff, in addition to patrolling daily, also continues to respond to 911 calls 24 hours a day throughout the winter.  In addition, we also start off season maintenance duties soon. In addition to replacing beach signs and repairing equipment, we’ll soon start the main task for winter, which is to rebuild and replace the 24 lifeguard towers we put out on the beach each season. Other duties include website redesign, water safety education outreach, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. It goes fast and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding for spring break.

One really nice thing about cooler weather and not having that heavy press of people on the beach, is that our team gets a chance to drop down to a 40-hour work week, and get some time with family, to train, catch up on their chores at home, or even go for a low stress surf session. I’m really happy for them to get some normal days with a normal stress level after one of the most difficult seasons that we’ve been through in recent history.

There are still plenty of beautiful days on the beach so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most. See you there!

Surf Roots

At 10 my friend David Schutz and I bought surfboards. I think our moms were sick of us riding homemade skim boards in the ditch and both of us coming in for dinner covered in oozy abrasions. Mine was a smashed up 5’11” yellowed Dale Dobson and his was a 6’1” green Petrillo. Beautiful. It was 1975, short boards hadn’t been around long, and every board had one fin. We sucked. But man, we had fun! My mom took us up to the beach at 47th all the time, and we’d stand in waist deep water and push into waves thinking we were superstars.

In 6th grade I went to a new school and met surfers that lived near me. We’d ride bikes up to 53rd and surf together for fun and for protection from the older, better, meaner surfers. Our friend group grew and we got better. There weren’t a lot of surfers around then and we knew most everyone by sight if not personally.

Being the 70’s there was this sort of hippy vibe to the whole surf scene. Lots of the older, hardcore guys worked jobs that they could ditch when the fickle Texas surf came up. A bunch of them worked at the Glassing Factory or Freestyle Fins. Both of those places were pretty tolerant if you took off for a month or two to go down to Mexico or farther on safari. They also closed down on days with surf and they’d all hit the water. Some of the best local surfers worked there and it was pretty humbling if you were out in the lineup when they all paddled out together.

One day I drifted out too far with the rip into the lineup and got in one of the real superstar’s way. I dove under and heard the boards crack. “YOU STUPID KOOK!” he yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” I yelled/stammered, my little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to smash my face for a minute, and then seemed to think better of pummeling an 11-year-old. Instead, he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he ignored and kept surfing). He turned, glared, and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”

Now, 47 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s at least one “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.

Surfing culture has changed as the sport has grown and become more mainstream. Its more inclusive and less territorial. It may have lost some of its mystique, but the waves are the same.

Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Supervisor Michael Lucero were powering up and down the seawall last Sunday moving swimmer after swimmer away from the rocks. The wind was howling, water was rough, there were strong lateral currents pulling people to the rocks, and the rip currents were really strong. On top of all that the beach was packed, the water and air were both in the ‘80’s, and only a handful of guards were able to come in to work.

They moved a woman away from the rocks on the west side of 17th street, explained the dangers, and raced to the next rock groin to make sure no one was getting too close since their last pass. They covered a zone that went from 37th to 10th street, but other trucks were working other zones along the beach doing the same thing. Even the 6 lifeguards in towers were busy just watching their one area.

A few minutes after they pulled away from 17th street, the 911 dispatcher came up on our radio reporting a call on a possible drowning. Moffett and Lucero raced back to 17th to find the same woman with bystanders having started CPR after finding her face down on the shoreline in shallow water on the opposite side of the rocks. They later learned from witnesses that she’d entered the water again a few minutes after they left outside of the “no swimming” area but was quickly swept to the rocks and got caught in the rip current. The rip currents caused a drop off so she couldn’t stand as the water pulled her away from shore. She struggled and went face down for a couple of minutes before the bystanders found her and pulled her up on the shore to begin CPR.

Moffett and Lucero arrived, ran to the crowd with their medical gear and quickly took over CPR. They got a heartbeat back with the help of the Galveston Fire Department. Police provided crowd control and got witness statements as she was moved up to the Seawall into a waiting ambulance.

By the end of the weekend, we moved about 2,500 people from the dangerous areas near the rocks and responded to quite a few emergency calls.

Monday was the last day for seasonal lifeguards. By the time you read this we will probably have all the towers off the beach for the rest of the year and will be working out of mobile patrol vehicles until next March. We still have quite a bit of warm weather ahead of us. Hopefully we won’t have another weekend like last one.

I am so proud of our staff for how they rise to the occasion when we have these “perfect storms” of warm water, crowds, and rough conditions. But we really hope that the people coming to the beach over the next few weeks realize that patrolling out of a vehicle is way less effective than having guards at each spot and take that personal responsibility to be safe upon themselves.