Institutional Memory

Galveston city and county have a history of resilience. Despite our mercurial weather and politics we somehow manage to pull together when we need to. Many of those of us living here now have ancestors that rebuilt the city after the 1900 storm and erected the physical embodiment of that resilience and willingness to take on seemingly insurmountable tasks together when needed.

Only a few years back we once again proved that those qualities are still just as strong when we worked together to rebuild our communities after Hurricane Ike. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have so quickly without governmental help, but much of that recovery happened by neighbors helping neighbors.

The wounds left by Hurricane Ike are diminishing, although we have a long way still to go before the physical and psychological damage is healed. Enough time, however, has passed that we’re already losing some of the institutional memory that our decision makers from that time had. How do we, as a community, keep the myriad of lessons learned despite the changes in city leadership and as people in key roles from that experience cycle out?

In a very forward thinking move, many of our city and county leaders attended an emergency management course at the FEMA training center in Emmetsburg, Maryland last week. It says a lot about the current leadership that they realized the importance of taking all of these busy, important people away from their duties for an entire week with the purpose of preparing them for how to deal with all stages of a catastrophic event, from emergency response all the way through debris management, restoring infrastructure and financial and psychological recovery.

The course itself was intense and even included three “table top” exercises that lasted several hours where we had to work together to address different problems that arose. A central theme that was repeatedly stressed was the importance of relationships and communication in getting a jump on both the response and recovery phase. It helped that we were locked into a compound in the middle of a blizzard! What little time was spent out of class was spent together continuing course discussions.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a group of Beach Patrol supervisors were taking their own course in disaster response. Kara Harrison, Josh Hale, Mary Stewart, and Kris Pompa went through a grueling swift water/urban flooding course in San Marcos. They spend 4 long days and one night in wetsuits learning swift water rescue techniques, search and recovery, and how to respond during a flood. This meets a goal we’ve been working on for some time on the Beach Patrol. We now have every full time member certified as a “Swift Water Rescue Technician”, which will prove invaluable to our community when we have our next flooding incident.

We don’t know when but we all know there will be another big one. The challenge is to keep the skills and institutional knowledge ready for that eventuality. Being prepared takes work, commitment, resources, and community buy in, but it’s essential.

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Tommy Lee of GEMS and Peter Davis of GIBP at FEMA training camp in Maryland, 2014.

Phosphorescence

The lack of moon and heavy fog made the night darker than normal. The wind was calm and the water was like glass. As the stand-up paddler’s board cut through the frigid water, it left a glowing trail of phosphorescence behind. A wave broke ahead and sent a yellow/green light pulsing into the night.

Nowhere is the natural ebb and flow more apparent than along the coast line. Just as the tide rises and falls, animal and plant life increases and decreases depending on the amount of light, food, salinity, or predators. No doubt, human interference disrupts the natural cycles when we add pollutants or overfish certain species, but it’s hard to separate out what causes what. The relationship between organisms is so varied and complex that isolating underlying causes is tough.

We’ve seen a number of species multiply above normal in recent years. One season we have heavy Sargassum Seaweed, the next you see the wingtips of cow nosed rays everywhere in shallow water. Every few seasons we’re visited with a pesky red tide that causes inflamed mucus membranes and fish kill. The most recent bloom is something fairly benign but definitely one of the most beautiful phenomena we come across on the Gulf Coast.

This particular bloom is a type of algae and it involves tiny glow in the dark specs to shine when movement/oxygen affect them. There’s usually a bit of phosphorescence in the gulf but not enough to see. But this week there were so many that it lit up the night. It was mesmerizing.

The ocean has many forms of life that generate their own light. Animals that live deep in the ocean below the level reached by surface light often have weird glowing appendages to light their way or scare off predators. Others have huge eyes sensitive to the slightest glow. One of the coolest animals is found right here in the gulf and is really plentiful. The Ctenophore, commonly called the “Comb Jelly”, doesn’t sting and is pretty small. It feels like you touched a piece of gelatin floating in the water. Sometimes they are so thick that it’s like swimming though goo. At night, when prodded they produce about the same amount of light as a firefly.

Life struggles to find a balance. We know this in ourselves as we feel the natural mood swings we go through that are exacerbated by lack of sleep, improper diet, or a disruption in our routine. We also see it in the natural world in all types of forms. Normal amounts of ebb and flow ads spice to our existence. We wouldn’t appreciate the sun as much without the rain or the warmth without the cold. By the same token we wouldn’t value the days we feel like all is right with ourselves and the world if we didn’t have days that weren’t so good.

The trick within ourselves and in the natural world is to keep these fluctuations within a reasonable range.

White Pillars

The family of five showed up at the lakeside park in north Texas on Christmas Eve. Camping over Christmas was a long standing tradition and, as the kids were getting older, they were able to take longer hikes.

They followed a trail that ran around the lake. The youngest daughter was seven years old and lagged behind, unnoticed by the older kids and adults. As they made their way back to the campsite they realized the young girl was missing. What followed were something we know all too well- frantic calling and searching and eventually a 911 call.

Multiple agencies responded and researched the area. Eventually a tracker dog focused on a spot not too far from the campsite. A Department of Public Safety dive team arrived. They knew that this was a recovery operation and the time for potential rescue had long passed. They dove for several hours in the frigid waters but found nothing.

Thousands of people saw the heartbreaking story on the news.

Hundreds of miles away a woman in Louisiana woke up in a cold sweat. She had a dream that she saw the young girl in the water just in front of several white pillars. She couldn’t shake the image. It wasn’t a normal dream. It felt so real. Finally, after not being able to go back to sleep, she picked up the phone and made a call.

The woman was so convincing on the phone that the dive commander decided to follow his gut and go back out to the lake. On the far side of the lake there were some white barrels standing upright. They looked like pillars from a distance. He called his team back and they set up to dive. The first diver entered the water and resurfaced with the girl’s body within about 40 seconds.

This is a true story that was recently related to me by the very same dive commander. He was ex military and currently a police chief. He’d overseen the state dive team for many years, had seen a lot, and was definitely not the kind of guy that embellishes his stories.

It’s hard not to hear this and not believe in something. We see the world through our own lenses so some might say it was divine intervention from some type of “higher power”. Others might say its voodoo, telepathy, or an interconnectedness of being. My favorite is a connection that travels through a force that permeates the universe and binds it together (for the Star Wars fans).

It’s surprising how many people in public safety are superstitious. But after these men and women learn to follow their instincts and see patterns in seeming chaos, there is a real reward. There are too many police investigators that solve crimes by weighing the evidence AND following their instincts, or fire fighters that can “read” what fires will do even when it seems illogical.

Sometimes you have to trust your gut to see the unseen.

Police Chief Training

I was in Huntsville all this week for police chief training. The state of Texas mandates that all chiefs go through 40 hours of training every two year cycle. It’s interesting that Texas has so many departments per capita and the majority of departments are 5 or less. Even though we only have 7 certified officers on the Beach Patrol, our staff of well over 100 employees during the summer season makes us one of the larger departments in the room. I’m sure it’s hard to design a curriculum for a group that has such a wide range of responsibilities, but the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) does a good job.

I always kind of dread it, mostly because I have a hard time sitting still for 9 hours a day, but like lots of training we do, I’m always glad I went and bring good things back to the job. The topics are usually interesting and many of them are helpful. Of course we cover updates in the laws and pertinent issues related to whatever is current. For example, the last couple of cycles had sessions on terrorism. There are always really great presentations on management, human resources, and leadership that are easily put into practice.

This session we had a really good presenter named Kelli Arena who was a reporter for CNN for a number of years. She talked about the managing a crisis while handling the media. It was good to hear how this works from a reporter’s perspective. A big part of the discussion was about tension between law enforcement/public safety and the press. Of the 70 or so police chiefs in the room the majority admitted to avoiding the press when able and having predominately negative experiences when dealing with the media.

Our core mission is two pronged. Coupled with rescue, prevention and preparedness is an underlying philosophy that puts a very high priority on public education. This is one reason I don’t share the negative view of the press. I’m not saying there’s been a perfect history, but we’ve been lucky to have a long standing positive relation with most of the media outlets in the area.  Each person that learns about beach safety is one less person that we have to move out of dangerous areas or rescue. The media is an integral part in getting this information out there and has been very generous about letting us piggyback water safety information on to news stories related to events on the beach.

Ultimately all public safety works for the general population. The press is a direct line to the people. Part of the reason we’ve had a good relationship with the press is that we are as open and responsive to them as we can reasonably be. The same for the public we serve. Things work better when we all keep in mind that each of us plays a part in the greater good.

Doing the right thing brings good back to you.

 

Terrible Tuesday, Winter Activities and Marketing

After the first 5 minutes of swimming, we still felt like our faces were going to fall off.

On the initial immersion, we felt as if we couldn’t breathe at all. We had to force ourselves to put our heads down in the water and relax enough to swim. Every time we opened our mouths to breathe the water felt like a freezing cold water fountain. Those with cavities definitely felt it!

By the time we finished the first lap, our bodies were starting to adjust. Hands, feet, and faces became numb and the pain receded to a dull ache. By the end of the next lap, done on rescue boards, our core temperature was smoking hot and generating enough extra heat to make it much less of an ordeal to enter for the third lap, which was another swim.

After six laps, three swims and three paddles, and 9 runs we had averaged about an hour and 20 minutes of training. Enough to know that your body will adapt to water in the low 50’s or high 40’s. We do this workout, dubbed the “Terrible Tuesday”, once a week during the winter months. Enough to not become afraid or distracted or disoriented when you have to jump in for a rescue.

Training like this during the winter is a welcome break from the frenzy of activity at the Beach Patrol leading up to the next season. Looking back over the past 3 months we’ve replaced all the downed or damaged signs on the beach, done a lengthy employee review,  rebuilt all of our 26 lifeguard towers, ordered all vehicles and supplies, updated or training and policy manuals, trained and recertified staff members, revised our employee evaluation process, created an annual workflow calendar, revised our website, attended job fairs and other recruiting events, and helped in the design process of the new Tourist Ambassador Training program the Park Board has been creating. We’ve also researched and ordered almost all of our supplies for the year including vehicles, medical supplies, uniforms, rescue equipment, etc.

The nice thing about having the time to concentrate on all these internal projects is that once the beach crowd arrives we can focus almost completely on that. We have our hands so full in the “season” hiring, re-training, and supervising our 110 or so seasonal employees that it feels like there’s not room for much else. With 5-7 million visiting the beaches and so many seasonal workers it makes sense that we’d be stressed and running around like crazy to get ready for the coming storm!

With more tourists coming more of the year, and a focus on increasing tourism during the “shoulder seasons”, we are working to solidify our infrastructure and be prepared to expand to more of a year round operation if needed. As tourism becomes more and more important to our economy and livelihood, the best marketing we can possibly do is to make sure they feel safe and that the beaches and island are attractive.

 

 

Platform Fire

The 911 dispatcher came up on the Beach Patrol main channel last Monday evening with a request from the Galveston Fire Department to help with a fire on an oil platform fire on Pelican Island.

Three of our full time superstars responded, all of whom are surf guards, EMTs, and peace officers. As per our protocol Josh Hale went directly to the scene of the fire to assess what was needed from our end and to join the unified command. Kris Pompa and Austin Kirwin brought our rescue boat from Stewart Beach to the Yacht Basin, launched, and drove quickly to Pelican Island.

When Kris and Austin got there they realized that the Fire Department had a pretty intense situation going on. The fire was in one of the legs of an old oil platform that was dry docked. The fire fighters had been shuttled out to a barge. A crane lifted two of the fire fighters 50-60 feet up in the air so they could shoot water down into the leg.

The Battalion Chief called us in case one of the fire fighters fell in the water. Falling in the water from such a high place could be a big deal, but doing it in full bunker gear could be disastrous.

Fortunately, everything turned out fine. Our team’s role of sitting and watching was uneventful. The fire department put out the fire without any one getting hurt and without significant loss of property. Our guys got back to headquarters with even more respect for the amazing job our fire department does than they already had. For us watching how they handled it so smoothly was a real privilege. For them it was another day at the office. As the Battalion Chief put it, “If there weren’t accidents, none of us would have jobs.”

Situations where the different response agencies in Galveston smoothly help each other have become more and more common, thanks to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response group. Galveston Fire, Police, and Beach Patrol routinely assist each other, along with the Sheriff Office Marine Division, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, State Park Rangers, Schlitterbahn Lifeguards, and the Jesse Tree. When Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a cohesive response group for major disasters we didn’t realize how in the process we would drastically improve our response to localized events. Enhanced communication, joint training, and shared resources are common occurrences which is better for everyone, especially the public who depends on us.

The nice thing about this particular incident is that it was a good chance return all the favors we receive from the Galveston Fire Department on the beach each year. When those 6 million people hit the island’s beaches, no one group can handle it alone. We’re really thankful for all the good work Fire, Police, and EMS does each year and all the help they give us on the beach. Nice have the opportunity to repay them how and when we can.

Hypothermia

Last Monday night around 7pm a 911 call came through the city dispatch of someone jumping off of the causeway. We responded along with the Fire, Police, and EMS. Josh Hale joined the “unified command” on top of the causeway while Kara Harrison and Kris Pompa launched our boat and searched under the bridge with spotlights and sonar. Fortunately it was a false alarm.

People attempting suicide by jumping off of the causeway or swimming out into the ocean are not uncommon and we work several of these cases each year. People that are in this type of mental state are, obviously, not thinking rationally. But there is often this sort of romanticized version of ending your life in the ocean. The ocean brings many of us peace. I assume this must be in the back of peoples’ minds when they start driving south on I-45. Or maybe we’re just at the end of the road.

Dealing with people who are in an unstable state of mind is very dangerous for emergency responders. Add water and that danger increases exponentially. It’s an easy thing for a would-be rescuer to drown because they were incapacitated by a blow to the neck or elsewhere. Peace officers can’t use their normal tools of the trade while submerged. For that reason we take these calls seriously and try to take precautions like approaching in a group or not entering the water unless it’s a truly life threatening emergency.

That said, a large percentage of these cases change their minds pretty quickly when they hit the water which changes the situation into a potential rescue.

A huge factor in winter rescue work is that of potential hypothermia. Web MD defines hypothermia as “…a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature, usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures.” Medically speaking, hypothermia starts when your core temperature drops below 95 and is defined as “severe” at or below 86. The reason it’s such an issue for us is because people can become disoriented and make bad choices pretty early on in the process.

The year round Beach Patrol staff is equipped with wetsuits and train regularly in cold water. We don’t want to become victims ourselves. We know our limits and make sure we are prepared when we enter the water. Most people don’t. Hypothermia occurs even in mild conditions. We often see mild hypothermia in the summer. Basically it’s just a matter of how much heat escapes your body and how rapidly. Factors that affect when an individual will become hypothermic are a person’s age, body mass, body fat, overall health, and length of time exposed to cold temperatures. About 90% of heat loss is from your skin and the rest occurs when you exhale. Water greatly accelerates the process.

No matter the time of year it’s important that you self-monitor. If you start to shiver, that’s your body trying to maintain its core temp.

Time to make a good choice. Warm up and dry off!

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*Image courtesy of the 9th Coast Guard District’s Blog

http://greatlakes.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2013/04/hypothermia-kills-these-tips-can-save-your-life/