Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?

South Padre Island Competition

The drive to South Padre is long. After 5 hours or so we pulled into a truck stop to get some gas. It was over 100 degrees and the wind was blasting at nearly 30mph. Cowboys gawked as we got out of our lifeguard truck piled high with boards, buoys, flags and other competition equipment.

The next morning we arrived at Isla Blanca County Park just after 6am to a beautiful day. We were greeted by a bunch of enthusiastic young lifeguards who were really helpful as we set up a water course with 10 flags that corresponded to the 10 flags on PVC posts along the shoreline.

The Gulf Coast Regional Championships started off with a run, followed by a run-swim-run, rescue board race, 4X100 meter beach relay, swim rescue, rescue board rescue, and a game of beach flags. Three teams were represented: Galveston Beach Patrol, South Padre Island Beach Patrol, and Cameron County Beach Patrol. There was a 15 minute break between each race and the marshaling for the next one. As the day wore on, more and more people crowded around to see what was going on. This was the first time an event like this has been held on SPI and everyone wanted to know all about it. Isla Blanca was the perfect venue with several thousand people already at the park on this busy Sunday.

Because we couldn’t spare many guards we only went down there with three people. Along with me were Kevin Anderson and Amie Hufton who are both good athletes and experienced competitors. Despite this, Kevin and I were surprised to see two of the younger guards blast off during the swim and beat us to the finish line by a few seconds. We got our game face on but still had some little dude beat us in the paddle. Meanwhile Amie won the women’s run, got 2nd in the swim, and won the paddle. Kevin and I finally got it together and won both the swim rescue and the rescue board rescue by a big margin. By 1pm we wrapped everything up with Team Galveston winning 5 firsts, 3 seconds, 4 thirds, and 2 fourths.

From there we caught a quick lunch and then joined the city lifeguards in a 3 kilometer paddle that ended in a fundraising party. I’d spend quite a bit of time down there a few years back helping both groups set up lifeguard services and it was good to catch up with friends and acquaintances  from that time that are involved with city and county government, lifesaving, and surfing. But we were all definitely glad to crawl into our beds in the hotel and I think we were all sound asleep by 10pm!

5 years ago there were no lifeguards in South Padre island. Now the county has 45 guards and the city has 25 and they have joined the United States Lifesaving Association. Many lives have been saved and will be saved.

Ben Carlson

Ben Carlson, a 32 year old lifeguard from Newport Beach went out on a fairly routine rescue last week just off Balboa Peninsula. He jumped off the back of a rescue boat and made contact with his victim just as a big set of waves hit both men in the impact zone.

Ben was a very experienced waterman. He competed in beach lifeguard events regularly, was a big wave surfer, and a high level college swimmer. He was one of the top athletes that worked for Newport Beach, which is in the epicenter of USLA lifesaving talent. Throughout his decade and a half career he made several hundred rescues.

The waves were reportedly 6-8 foot, which means the wave that hit him likely had a 12 foot face. Other lifeguards were able to rescue the victim when he surfaced, but Ben didn’t come back up. Any water rescue is very risky. One small thing like getting poked in the neck or choking on water can mean the difference between the rescuer surviving or not making it. But with that much water moving around there’s a million ways that rescue could have gone wrong.

One of my best friends is Rob Williams, who is Chief of the Newport Beach lifeguard service. We’ve known each other for years through the United States Lifesaving Association. Currently he is the Treasurer and I’m the Vice President. He, their Beach Patrol, and the community is going though one of the worst things that can happen to a group- the loss of a hero. From the sound of it Ben was everything you’d want in someone to represent your community. I hope we never have to go through that here. Rob and I have had several conversations about the inherent risks of the job, how many people our beaches deal with annually and the odds of something like this happening.

Lifeguards from all over California, surfers from the region, Ben’s family and friends, and many others participated in a traditional “paddle out” ceremony last Sunday. This is a way for surfers, lifeguards, and other water people to celebrate the life of a fallen comrade. Some say its origins come from ancient Hawaiian culture, but most historians believe it has its roots just after the turn of the 20th century. Wherever it came from it is practiced all over the world where there are beaches. It usually involves people paddling out on a surfboard or other craft, forming a circle, telling stories, and putting flowers in the center. Sometimes ashes are put in the water. The ceremony can be religious or secular in nature.

Ben’s paddle out was exceptional. According to the LA Times 5,000 people watched from the pier and shore and there were approximately 2,500 people in the water. There’s a really well done video that’s worth a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEpHEaGQUUI&feature=youtu.be . This may be the largest paddle out ceremony in known history.

There is no more fitting way to say good bye to a water person.

 

Ben Carlson paddle out

 

 

Community Pool

We don’t see a lot of children drown on the beach like you do in inland waterways, pools, drainage ditches, wells, etc. That’s why last weekend when we almost lost a 3 year old it shook us up. Fortunately the little girl was only under for a short time before parents, bystanders, and the area lifeguard were right on top of it. The guard started artificial respirations immediately and she ended up being OK after a couple of days in the hospital. No drowning is good and one involving a child is especially tough. We were happy to end a holiday weekend of very hard work and long hours with no drownings on the island. But there is much, much more to the chain of drowning prevention besides an effective lifeguard service.

The number one way to prevent drowning is to learn to swim. In the United States Drowning is the 2nd leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of 14. 70% of African American children, 60% of Hispanic children and 40% of Caucasian children cannot swim. We live on an island where no one is more than a mile and a half from water. Unfortunately it’s not the kind of water you can learn to swim in. In fact it’s really dangerous to try to teach a kid to swim in the beach or in open water. Unlike most of the cities in our area we have no public pool in which to teach swimming lessons or provide other aquatic programs in. According to USA Swimming, the risk of drowning drops 88% by participation in formal swimming lessons.

The good news is the most recent attempt to build a community pool is coming close to success. They have raised 1.7 million, which is almost half the needed funds and have 1.9 million to go (that’s only $50/person on the island).  They recently received a big challenge grant from the Moody Foundation and need to raise the balance to receive it.

In my opinion the plan is solid and choosing the site of Lasker Park is right on the mark. The city already owns the land. 69% of the kids on the island live within two miles of the site. There will be two pools, one a shallow walk-in pool with water features and slide. The other is a competitive eight lane pool. Programs will include swimming lessons, training for rescue teams, life guard training, water aerobics and swimming competitions, scuba classes and more; all of which will generate income.

Your help and support is needed to make the community pool a reality.  Donations of any size will help meet the Moody Foundation’s challenge grant.

Tax deductible gifts (checks or MasterCard or Visa) may be sent to Galveston Community Pool, c/o Barbara Sanderson, Director, Parks and Recreation, McGuire Dent Recreation Center, 2222 28th St, Galveston, TX 77550.  Phone: 409-621-3177.

This is the same community that elevated the island and built the seawall. A pool should be easy if we all pitch in.

 

Community Swimming Pool

4th of July Tips

If you’re like several hundred thousand others, you’ll be heading to the beaches on or near Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula this weekend. For many, the beach is a perfect place to spend time with your friends and family while you enjoy some Texas or Tejano style BBQ, surf, and sand. Some 3-500 thousand people will likely be on the island this weekend and we would all really like to see all of them get home safely. There are several ways to do that.

The main thing is to swim near a lifeguard. You chances of drowning in an area protected by guards trained to the minimum standards set by the United States Lifesaving Association are 1 in 18 million. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency by this group, which is their highest level. You are responsible for your own safety but guards provide a valuable additional layer of protection.

Rip currents are the cause of 80% of rescues made in the surf. In Texas the strongest rip currents are found near structures like rock groins and piers. That’s why on the seawall the guard towers are near the groin and why we put signs and ropes in the area. Stay away from the rocks and while swimming check the shoreline to make sure you’re not drifting near them without realizing it.

The ends of the island are very dangerous with strong periodic tidal flows. You should not swim or wade in the areas of the San Luis Pass and the Houston Ship Channel. Both ends of the island have a long history of drownings. Both ends are now heavily patrolled but it only takes a few seconds for tragedy to strike.

Now that the Texas heat is on us be sure and take extra precautions for the heat and sun. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay hydrated. If you start feeling nauseous, weak, or dizzy you could be feeling the effects of the sun and should rehydrate and seek shade.

Be sure you keep your kids in sight and get in the water with small kids or kids that are poor swimmers. Stay close to shore. Strong currents all week mean there are deep troughs near the shore so be extra careful.

In case you haven’t heard, most of the Caribbean and Gulf has been heavily impacted by Sargassum. The Park Board maintenance department has been working unbelievable hours to keep the beaches looking nice. Stewart Beach, East Beach, and the Seawall are the most clear. Over the weekend the Galveston Park Board is sponsoring beach “Bucket Brigades” where kids can join a tour led by marine biologists to learn about the environmental benefits of seaweed and how it is a habitat for marine life.   Look for our beach volunteers wearing bright orange t-shirts while out on the beach or visit www.galvestonbeachinfo.com.

Well be out in force, so check with the guard when you arrive for specific information and have fun!

BBQ Thank You

A light breeze cooled the crowd as dusk set in on the street outside of the Press Box. The music played a mix that had a little something for everyone. People mingled, ate plates of BBQ, told stories, perused the silent auction items, talked trash, and all seemed to be having a good time.

The beach party of the year went well. For me, on this 17th year we’ve had this fundraiser, things seemed to fall in place. Layers of groups all mixed together. There were rookie lifeguards doing most of the work, recurrent guards and their families, Beach Maintenance and Beach Park employees, a reunion of guards that worked for us years ago, Galveston partiers, people who work the beach in various capacities, city and county officials and employees, people who just came out to support what we do, and 10 to 15 year old Junior Lifeguards running around.

A lot of people and groups put in a ton of work to make this happen and make it run smoothly. There are too many to include here, but I and we sincerely thank all of them and all of the people who came out to support and donate so generously. It looks like we were able to raise quite a bit of money to support our scholarship program, our Junior Guard families that bring their kids to the national guard competition, lifeguard exchange program, specialty equipment, and a number of other good things that we do but can’t provide from a governmental budget.

But more than just a fundraiser, this event has come to signify a pause in the summer madness. It’s a chance for all of us that work so hard on the beach and that deal with tourists in other capacities to relax for a minute. We get to take a breath, spend some time together, and have a little fun before diving back in. For me it’s a chance to acknowledge that no matter how koo-koo we Galvestonians can be, there is something special about living here. A chance to remember how much I genuinely like so many people that live on this island.

It’s also a marker. Junior lifeguards that attended the first BBQ fundraiser event at 10 years of age are now pushing 30 and are teaching the next generation how to be lifeguards while instilling those intangible values that beach people around the world share. Teaching them to enjoy life, honor each other, live simply, be of service, put another’s life before your own when needed, work with the water/environment instead of imposing yourself on it, and to respect the water and marine environment.

So before I dive back into the second half of the summer along with the 100 guards I’m privileged to work with, let us say a collective thank you to everyone who supported this event and supports us throughout the years and decades. It means more than we could ever express and enables us to do the work we do.

 

Herd Immunity

Three girls played in the shallow water of Stewart Beach while one of their moms watched attentively from the water’s edge. There were two eight year olds and one ten year old. The taller of the eight year olds and the 10 year old have been on the Galveston Island Swim Team and were very accustomed to the beach. The shorter of the 8 year olds, while able to swim, had not been around the water as much as her friends.

As the day wore on the girls felt more and more comfortable and drifted farther and farther out. Eventually they were up to their chests and were having fun splashing each other and diving under the gentle waves. The mom watching from shore was a little concerned but the girls seemed to know what they were doing. Although they’d gotten farther from shore they weren’t as far out as lots of the other children swimming in the area.

At almost the same moment that the mom turned around briefly to get a water from their cooler, the shortest of the girls was pushed off of the sandbar by a wave. Unable to stand up, she panicked and tensed up. Tensing up caused her to sink and she started to kick and paddle really hard with her arms and legs. She quickly tired and started dipping under the water.

Fortunately, the remaining two girls were only a few feet away and the other 8 year old quickly swam over and grabbed the struggling girl’s arm and swam her a few feet to the 10 year old. The 10 year old was able to stand and wrapped the girl in a bear hug and walked her closer to shore. The mom was already on the way out to meet them.

All in all it was a pretty minor event. It ended up OK but it could have been more severe. The parent did all the right things. She was sober, attentive, and picked a spot right by the lifeguard so they’d have that extra layer of protection. But it shows how quickly things can go bad when you’re in the water.

We talk about layers of protection a lot. An attentive parent is a layer. A lifeguard is a layer. But in this case it was a third layer that may have kept something bad from happening. This little girl was with two friends that were good swimmers. This is called “herd immunity” in epidemiological terms. A child surrounded by other kids that have been “vaccinated” with swimming ability and water safety info has less a chance of drowning.

So, in conclusion, let me plug our BBQ fundraiser tonight at 24th and Postoffice from 6-10. Good food, good music, pro surfers with Hurley showing a new surf video, and a silent auction. It’s a chance to surround yourself with lifeguards and beach people. It’s the beach party of the year and with that much herd immunity I can practically guarantee you won’t drown!

Accident

The world froze as a small group of people huddled around the back of the car leaning on each other for support. You couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began and you got the feeling that each would not be able to support him/herself alone. Cars did not pass by on the seawall, lights on top of emergency vehicles flashed, and emergency workers stood a respectful distance back and showed no sign of having something more important to go to. It was a significant moment that altered the course of several lives. It was a moment frozen in time that seemed to be both way too short and to stretch into eternity.

Stories within stories.

It seems like all anyone was talking about around town this week was the terrible wreck on 23rd and seawall that resulted in the tragic death of a man from Michigan. The paper did an excellent job of describing the event, but there was an important subtext whose story should be told.

I was on my way into work a little after 7am and happened to be only a couple of blocks away when the call went out on the radio about the accident. When I got there, it took a moment to take it all in and figure out what had happened and how many people were involved. One man lay wounded on the seawall with his head cradled in another’s lap, another lay in the rocks on the beach not breathing. A smoking, battered truck was mangled and wedged between rocks on one side and climbed halfway up the seawall on the other. A man was trapped inside. It was terrible.

As other emergency responders arrived and we went to work sorting it out, we noticed two women and two children just down the beach. They didn’t realize it yet but they had each just lost a father, husband, or grandfather.

Some of the most real moments we face are when life comes into or leaves this world. There are those that are not afraid to face these moments and reach across barriers to touch another life when it is most needed and most difficult. Battalion Chief Gary Staudt of the Galveston Fire Department intuitively knew there was no greater priority and reached through the normal psychological barriers and offered support without reservation. David Mitchell, Sheila Savage, Marilyn Schwartz, and Ted Handly of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network brought a tent, food drinks, and support for what ended up being about 10 relatives that had come to Galveston together. Randy Burrows, the medical examiner, stretched protocol to allow the family to do the last rights before the body was taken to the morgue. There were others with the local police, fire, EMS, and outside agencies called in to help that reached out to the family as they performed their duties.

A terrible and beautiful moment frozen in time. A story within a story. A time to show what it is to be human.

Security at the Parks

15,000 people were at East Beach on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. Most were well behaved, but some weren’t. Many were drinking and there had been a few scuffles by 3pm but nothing major. Groups were starting to clump up in the parking lot. Security was moving proactively through the crowded parking lot disbursing the groups and making the troublemakers leave so everyone else could enjoy themselves.

There are layers of security at the Park Board managed beach parks. The primary group on the weekends is the Park Board Security Detail. Although it is managed by a Galveston Police Department appointed person, it is comprised of officers from various departments. Because the Galveston Police Department manages security at these large parks there is a seamless transition to the other city enforcement assets. They can write tickets for city ordinances, coordinate with the GPD patrol division when dealing with traffic issues that cross the boundaries between parks and city streets, and have a direct line for support for issues of a more serious nature.

Mornings on the weekends and weekdays security issues are primarily handled by the Park Board Police Department. The Park Board Police Department falls under the umbrella of the Beach Patrol and is comprised of Beach Patrol full time staff members that are also working as lifeguard supervisors on the beach. Needless to say our capacity is pretty limited since we generally have our hands full with lifeguarding and medical responsibilities, but there are few enforcement issues in the parks during the week and we can typically handle them. GPD patrol division is always a big help when we need it. One nice thing about having our in house police department is that we can filter lots of minor calls for GPD, and we specialize in marine issues and beach related city ordinances.

For safety reasons the Park Board of Trustees, who sets policy, would like the parks cleared on holiday weekends, after large special events, and when there are crowd problems. On Memorial weekend the parks were cleared. Three hours before the parks closed, people were notified that they would need to exit the parks by the designated time. Groups on the beach were told multiple times by officers on 4 wheelers, lifeguard and police using public address systems, and at the gates as they came in. Finally, officers made a “sweep” of the beach and parking lot. Officers did not have to exit their cars. They started politely while most moved and didn’t become more firm until there were a few that did not move after repeated requests. There were no confrontations and no arrests while tens of thousands were moved out of the parks. To me this demonstrates how well chosen the officers that work in these sensitive tourist areas are and how sound the plan is.

There was a complaint. The result was that we had a chance to re-evaluate our methodology. There are nuances about the delicate balance between open beaches requirements and public safety and we want to use best practice.

Doing the right thing means you’re constantly re-assessing.

 

Memorial Magic

Somehow it all came together for Memorial Weekend.

The beach cleaning crews worked from midnight until people started crowding the beaches in the morning to remove the Sargassum from the shoreline. By first light the beaches looked pretty good. We finished the last little part of the new lifeguard training Friday night and the rookie lifeguards hit the beaches early Saturday morning for their first shift. They were joined half way through by the returning guards who used their experience to take the more difficult afternoon and evening shift. The beach security detail was heavily staffed and did an admirable job of dealing with the thousands that visited the parks. Lost child details were at designated sites, dispatchers trained and in place, beach vendors had all their equipment out, and park staff was hired, trained, and ready to go. EMS, Fire, and Police were fully staffed and out in force. All the pieces were in place and we needed every one of them.

From the time we started on Saturday morning until we crawled home late Monday night it was non-stop. Sunday was the peak and there seemed to be so many people on the island that their combined weight would make it sink. On Sunday alone we had over 40 lost children. Over the weekend we made almost 3,000 preventative actions where people were moved from dangerous areas. The Park Board park security detail did an admirable job of clearing well over 20,000 people from the two largest beach parks at the end of the day before they left. This kept us from getting called back in for drownings, fights, or other problems throughout the night.

The San Luis Pass was a hot spot. The police department worked hard to keep all the 4 wheelers and motorbikes under control while we struggled to get hundreds of would be swimmers to stay out of the dangerous waters that claimed four lives this time last year. Our new detail worked really, really hard and removed just short of a thousand people from the waters of the pass over the three day holiday. The also spoke with around 1,500 tourists about the dangers of the area, where it is safe to swim out there, and offered information about the island attractions.

Elbow grease wasn’t the only thing that caused things to go well. Fate smiled on our island by somehow halting the seemingly relentless flow of seaweed we’ve gotten lately during the weekend. The sun shown, the rain went elsewhere, and we had a refreshing breeze. We had few serious problems and, despite the half million visitors, no drownings.

As I drove the beach smelling the familiar BBQ, suntan lotion, and saltwater combination so unique to Galveston this time of year, I saw kids and parents, lovers, friends, and people seeking solitude. All enjoying a place that enables them take time away from their daily stresses and focus on more important things for a little while. It’s a magic place.