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.

Mothers Day Wrap Up

Two boys drifted towards the rocks in the longshore current. Once they got to the point of the longshore current, which pushed from West to East, met the rip current, which pulled out towards the end of the groin, there was no going back. They couldn’t swim to shore or against the longshore current. They had two options. They could swim out around the groin or they could climb up on the rocks. Because they were swimming at 47th, which was not guarded, there was no one to whistle them in or go in for them and swim them around the pier.

Fortunately, this was just another close call. A passing lifeguard patrol truck saw them and made it to them in time to keep them above water as all three climbed up onto the rocks together. They were cut up but alive.

It was a wild ride. We moved 4,664 swimmers, like these two, away from rip currents before they got in trouble. A handful of groins weren’t guarded, and our Supervisors scrambled in trucks to keep swimmers safe in these, and many other areas. Bumper to bumper traffic, beaches and water peppered with people made moving around quickly an impossibility. At one point we had a large, combative guy refuse to get out of the water (for hours), that was ultimately arrested by the Galveston Police Department. Meanwhile we had rescues made by lifeguards, a bike went off the seawall causing a significant head injury, and there were a couple of incidents involving weapons. All to the beat of a steady stream of swimmers moved, lost children reunited, a near drowning in a pool, and enforcements for everything from dogs off a leash to alcohol infractions. The fever pitch was exacerbated by a sand blasting 25 mile per hour South wind. The fun didn’t stop when the sun went down when joined our public safety partners to several nighttime beach emergencies, including a merry band of revelers who, around 4am, decided to drive their truck into the water at the San Luis Pass. The party continued on top of the vehicle, until eventually they came to shore at the coaxing of the public safety groups that responded. One guy tried to make a break for it back to his almost floating truck, but a Jamaica Beach Police Officer and several Galveston Firefighters stopped him.

The crowd looked like a busy Memorial weekend, which is our busiest weekend of the year. I was extraordinarily proud of our crew, who worked so hard and so long in such difficult conditions. From the lifeguards who were in the water most of the day moving swimmer after swimmer, up to Captain Tony Pryor, who worked a 10-hour shift, then came back in for 3 more hours when we had all our vehicles out on emergencies and needed support for the lifeguards and someone to patrol unguarded areas.

Tomorrow, May 15th, we have tryouts, and all employers are hurting for people. Let’s all pray for a good turnout!

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Annual BBQ Fundraiser

Unfortunately, we have to postpone our Annual BBQ Fundraiser until June 2022.

Thank you for your continued support and we will see you next year!

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

Rescue

A 5-year-old boy got caught in a rip current on the East side of 29th Street last Saturday and was pulled out to the end of the groin. There was no lifeguard on duty to stop him before he got into trouble and move him farther from the rocks and closer to shore. He began to struggle and started to go under.

A bystander ran to the nearest staffed tower at 27th street. Supervisor Michael Lucero was on duty and reacted immediately by calling in to our dispatch asking for assistance and by running to 29th and into the water.

Both for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and for the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) the number one safety tip is “Swim Near a Lifeguard”. As a description why USLA thinks this is so important they say “USLA statistics over a 10-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost 5 times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards. USLA has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million (.0000055%)”.

As Michael sprinted down the beach, a surfer spotted the small boy way out at the end of the groin. He paddled to the boy, who was unconscious and face down at this point, and grabbed him with one arm and the board with the other. He couldn’t get the child to shore but he was able to support him till Michael arrived. As Michael made contact and started back to shore, one of our rescue trucks arrived. Kevin Anderson set up the oxygen kit and Jeff Mullin went to help Michael bring the boy to shore. They found the boy with no pulse and he wasn’t breathing. The trio immediately started CPR and had the boy breathing with a heartbeat by the time the fire department was on the scene. The boy was brought in the Beach Patrol truck to the seawall and passed him to EMS, who took him to the hospital for further treatment.

We know that people are safer when they swim near a guard and take additional precautions like designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, don’t swim along, and more. But the challenge is, and continues to be, that Galveston has 33 miles of beaches, over 7 million tourists annually, a warming climate, and a marked tourism increase in the Spring and Fall.  Like many other service jobs, it’s getting harder to find enough people to fill the lifeguard spots. Meanwhile, the demand is increasing both in areas needing coverage and times of year people are swimming. Spring and Fall are particularly challenging as the majority of our guards are students who only work as “seasonal employees”, which limits them to 7 months.

So, understanding our challenges in covering all the areas with swimmers and seeing how quickly tragedy can strike, you understand how important it is that you take the time to find a guarded area to swim in.

Wave Watchers Graduation

This weekend should be an interesting one. We’ve got with some real high tides and very strong onshore winds predicted for tonight. Then tomorrow a nice day is scheduled for both the normal large beach crowds we’ve been seeing plus the Slow, Low, and Bangin’ (S.L.A.B.) event that is supposed to happen. Those who work the beaches in Galveston never have to be worried about being bored in the Spring!

Last week we had a great experience with our Wave Watcher Academy. As that group continues to grow each year, I’m continually impressed with what a great bunch they are. And it’s comforting to know that as demands on the city’s designated lifeguard service continue to grow, the Wave Watchers are able to fill in some of the gaps. I’m sure you’ve seen them in their blue and yellow shirts on the beachfront walking, bike riding, fishing, and surfing as they keep a trained eye out for developing problems.

The Academy included information about Beach Patrol, rip currents and other environmental hazards, local city ordinances and beach rules, and how to support the efforts of the lifeguards and other public safety groups. The Park Board provided on on-line certification as a “Tourist Ambassador”, and we certified them in CPR. We went through a bunch of different scenarios as varied as drownings, lost children, stranded dolphins and turtles, criminal activities, fires, people swimming in areas that could potentially be dangerous, etc. We talked about who to contact for what, whether it’s the Beach Patrol number, the Wave Watcher thread on an app, 911, the police non-emergency number, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, or Ghost Busters. One really cool thing was many of the Wave Watchers who have been around came to a lot of the training to offer advice, welcome the new members, and to sharpen their skills. The final day, they took a field trip and rode the island looking at water safety hot spots. They practiced throwing ring buoys to a “victim” lifeguard. We finished up with a graduation event at a local restaurant.

Many of our Wave Watchers are retirees who have a flexible enough schedule to go through the training on weekday mornings, which is the easiest time for us to provide instructors, since most of us are out on the beach working in the afternoons and evenings. Several people have suggested that we figure out something for people who are interested in joining the program, but who work during the day. Covid has been an awful thing, but its taught us a lot of ways to work and train in non-traditional ways. So, we’re looking at a Wave Watcher academy that is mostly online and which can be done at your own pace and time. We can pre-record presentations and offer online mini-courses. Then we’d just schedule some time on a weekend to practice skills and to visit the hot spots. Stay tuned if you’d be interested in this option.

See you on the beach!

Assumptions

The last weekend was a big one. Water and air in the 70’s and nice weather meant tons of people in the water. The entire island seemed pretty full, and the beaches were packed. Traffic was an issue on the seawall most of the weekend, making it hard for emergency response personnel to move around.

We had several “possible drowning” calls that fortunately resulted in everyone being OK. One of these was a pretty dramatic close call, two-person rescue by lifeguards. One of the victims ended up getting transported to the hospital to be checked out but appeared to be in pretty good shape. This was one of those rescues where seconds matter and the guards made contact just as the victims were going underwater. By the end of the weekend, we had 8 rescues, 5,000 preventative, several lost kids reunited, and a ton of enforcement actions under our belt. The lifeguards couldn’t have performed better.

Coming up we have some big beach events. Next weekend is the Adopt a Beach Cleanup, and the weekend afterwards may or may not have a big car club event. Plus, more and more people are visiting the beaches, particularly on the weekends. Will keep all of us on our toes!

I was saddened, as I’m sure many of you were, to hear about the tragedy that happened in Surfside where a father tried to save two children in a rip current and died in the effort. If you ever see someone in the water in distress, call for a guard if one is present or dial 911. Try to throw or extend a reaching object or floatation device without going in the water yourself. There are rescue boxes on each groin in Galveston. Many drownings happen in groups of 2 or more with would be rescuers dying in the attempt. We can’t stress strongly enough the importance of swimming near an appropriately certified ocean lifeguard whenever possible and following the other safety tips on our website www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com

Along with huge crowds of swimmers keeping us busy, we’ve also noticed that people seem to be more on edge than usual. Like the past crazy year with all the national drama, a pandemic, and everything else has left the entire population with a sort of societal PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). An amusing, but disturbing example happened the other day when we received a 911 call from a woman saying her husband and friend were drowning. A rescue truck was dispatched and ran into the water to find the two men were doing fine. They walked back in with the two, talking amicably, and then got back in their truck. A car drove by and yelled “Nice racist rescue @#$%^&*”! The woman and two men were African American. The people in the car (Subaru Outback) were white. My staff was talking about how quick people seem to be to make assumptions and to criticize. And how it seems to play out everywhere- even the beach!

Easter Wrap Up

A young boy and girl lay on a small sand dune. They were 3-4 years old and looked to be brother and sister. Although the day was not hot, the sand was nice and warm once the sun peeked out. They jabbered at each other while they piled the sand up and rolled around. A man who looked to be their dad looked on from just the right distance. Close enough to make sure they were safe, but far enough to give them the space to explore and discover.

As part of my routine, I often get tacos and eat them on the beach somewhere on the west seawall. When we get busy, we end up going from crisis to crisis. When we’re not so strapped, there’s always work waiting for me in my office or in my mobile office (truck). I like eating on the beach and watching people that are just out there enjoying themselves, like these two kids. Taking a few minutes to remind myself what an important space the beach provides for so many people helps to keep perspective. So much of our lives as coastal dwellers are punctuated by moments on the beach. People come for solace, to commune with nature, for exercise and sport, to share moments together, to have some time alone, or just to enjoy being out there on a beautiful day. I couldn’t help but think how I could be witnessing a moment for this particular family that they’d remember for the rest of their lives. For that matter, any number of the thousands of people that visited the beach over Easter Weekend (or any day on the beach) could be having that kind of moment.

Looking back, Easter has at times been a huge event for us with loads of rescues, lost children, medical emergencies, etc. But not this past weekend. Not to say that there weren’t lots of people here. The entire island was full of people and there were plenty of people on the beach. We were steady but not slammed. All told we made over 3,000 preventative actions, 5 medical responses, 118 enforcement actions, 2 lost kids reunited with parents, and one rescue. Comparing this to previous years and looking at the crowd, there was one factor that made the difference.

With the water temperature being in the mid 60’s it was just cold enough to keep people from staying in the water for long periods of time. They would get in, swim around for a bit, then get out and warm up. This took the burden of the guards. 3,000 people moved from rocks is a lot of work for our staff, but nothing like the 5-7,000 people we’d have moved if the water was just a few degrees warmer. This little “buffer” wont last long as we’re quickly approaching the magic number for water temp- 70 degrees. Once we hit 70, any time there’s people on the beach and warm air we’ll get real busy real fast.

OTB: Pre-Easter

The Easter holiday has been a big beach day for many years but has grown to be one of our major holidays. The seawall, beach parks, and west end have been packed on this weekend in recent history. For many people, particularly for families, going to the beach on Easter Weekend is a tradition.

For the Beach Patrol, it’s an especially busy holiday because normally, waves, currents, and people create equal work for lifeguards. Historically, the numbers support that. Looking back and picking a weekend just a few years ago, we had a total of 36 missing children reunited, 63 medical treatments, 7 rescues, 2 near-drownings, and 1,529 people moved from dangerous areas like those with rip currents. We could see numbers like that or even more with the increase in beach tourism we’ve had lately. Over Spring Break alone, we made over 5,200 preventative actions.

Part of the reason our “preventative actions”, of which the vast majority are moving people away from groins and piers where there are always rip currents, are so important is that each of these could potentially be life threatening. Its also especially impressive to see these numbers this time of year because the bulk of our workforce are students who are in school. We have very few available guards in the spring compared to the summer months. A lot of the work falls on the shoulders of mobile patrols which are largely staffed by our 12 full time Lifeguard Supervisors, including one Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. Mobile patrols are great for emergency response, much the same as EMS and the Fire Department operate. They are also critical in covering large swaths of beachfront and looking for situations that could potentially develop into something life threatening. But nothing compares to a trained lifeguard who is stationed in a tower and watching a section of beach. In the summer months we are able to staff most, or all of our 32 lifeguard towers each day. In the Spring we strategically place available guards in our highest risk and most populated areas. Statistics and experience help us figure out where these spots are. This is why our most important safety tip is to swim near a lifeguard.

After reading a glimpse into our inner workings, I’m sure you understand how important our Wave Watcher Program is, which involves volunteers who are trained to have a practiced eye, patrolling sections of the beach and letting us or other emergency response groups know if they see anything developing. If you or anyone you know is interested in joining this group and our Beach Patrol family, there is a free training course starting April 12th and information on our website.

The weather looks to be favorable for a big holiday event. The water is in the mid to high 60’s and is a little cold, but if the past few weekends are any indicator that won’t slow a lot of people down. Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!