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.

Memorial Weekend

It’s here! Beach season is on us. Depending on a multitude of factors, somewhere between 250-500,000 people will visit the island this weekend. And it won’t stop there. Last year, Galveston tourism set records for visitation and visitor spending. More than 5.8 million visitors came to Galveston Island, spending $687.2 million to generate an economic impact of $951.8 million to the local economy. This was a 5% increase from 2012.

Our tourism experts have been hard at work to keep the tourists coming. All of our major resort hotels have gone through renovations this year and we’ve had several new attractions open, including the new ropes course and zip line at Moody Gardens that just opened a couple weeks ago. In addition, the island just launched its first ever Certified Tourism Ambassador program where we are training hundreds of hospitality front-liners to provide deeper knowledge of the destination and better customer service to visitors. Being that our No. 1 attraction is the beach, they recently launched a new interactive website, www.galvestonbeachinfo.com, that allows visitors to check out surf conditions, weather, beach events and more prior to coming down to the island. Finally, the island offers a lot of free entertainment throughout the summer, such as free Sunday concerts and East Beach or Movie Night on the Strand. Check this out at www.galveston.com.

But once we entice all these visitors to the beach it falls to the various public safety groups to protect them. Lifeguards, Firefighters, Paramedics, and Peace Officers will go into a frenzy starting this afternoon and for the next few days. Memorial Weekend is usually the busiest holiday of the year. We will be ready. Last Wednesday we held our annual mass casualty drill. The scenario this year was a boat accident in Offats Bayou and the Moody Gardens Colonel paddleboat was kind enough to participate and serve as a safe site for rescue and triage of patients. The “victims” were our 27 lifeguard candidates who learned by watching how more experienced responders handled their simulated injuries. These drills are invaluable when practiced right before the busy season. Although the drill went well, we did find a few areas that needed improvement during the debriefing afterwards. We’ll have those rough edges ironed out when we face the inevitable crises over the holiday.

Our lifeguard candidates who made it through the final exam and “night swim” are scheduled to shadow a working lifeguard today as a final phase of their training. They’ll be out along with all the rest of the staff Saturday.

When you come to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, observe warning flags and signs, take precautions for the heat and sun, and keep a close eye on children. Feel free to approach the lifeguard with questions. The guards will be busy, but they’re never too busy to give safety advice, provide tourist information, help find a missing person, or assist with whatever problem you may have.

 

 

Night Swim Bonding

Ultimately, it’s all about relationships.

Wednesday evening at 5pm on the west seawall 75 lifeguards will dive into the surf and swim. They’ll make their way to the east. At some point they’ll get out and run through a series of obstacle stations. It might be a mud crawl or a rope climb. They may do calisthenics, answer questions about lifesaving, jump off rock groins, perform mock rescues, paddle rescue boards, or swim around the Pleasure Pier.

There will be a point somewhere where each rookie will doubt his/her ability to finish. There will be a point where they question their decision to join the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. They will seriously wonder if being part of the team is worth the pain. The last of the guards will trickle in at Stewart Beach up to 3 hours after starting to be welcomed by a crowd of fellow lifeguards, parents, friends, community supporters, and bystanders who get sucked into the event and follow them by car or bike to the finish line. The crowd will be truly glad that each and every one finishes. After a welcome ceremony the whole group relaxes and tells stories at a pizza party.

This grueling marathon is the final physical challenge for the Lifeguard Candidates. But it’s much more. For over 20 years this has been a way to show the candidates that they’re capable of so much more than they thought and that there’s no challenge they can’t handle. The most grueling rescue pales in comparison to this event. It’s also a way for returning guards to measure their physical condition and to compare themselves to the new group. Most importantly, it’s a way to bond.

There’s an intangible element to getting over 100 diverse, often independent personalities to work together seamlessly. The training and the protocols and the chain of command get us half way there, but each individual link having a deep understanding that he/she is part of the chain is key. No one goes beyond what they thought were their physical, mental, or psychological limits for money or because they have a boss who tells them to do something. It has to be a selfless act for the greater good of a group. Just like the military has to break cadets down and rebuild them, true lifeguards have to go through some pain and suffering to know in their hearts that they need the others and the others need them. Having all the staff go through this event has become a cornerstone of our training program and a way to build a Gestalt where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Our whole training program is designed to efficiently get all beach visitors home safely, but there’s a wonderful byproduct. Friendships forged in this type of environment have a depth and strength that lasts a lifetime. The most diverse people bond when they share pain and a common purpose.

Come cheer them on!

Ultimately, it’s all about relationships.

Training and CPR

Tomorrow is the last day for lifeguard tryouts. If you know anyone interested have them show up at the UTMB swimming pool at 7am. They’ll swim, interview, drug screen, compete in a run swim run for starters. Those that make it will start the 100 hour lifeguard academy that takes place over the next two weeks.

We are entering the busiest period for Beach Patrol. All of our seasonal workers should be rolling in during the next week or so which will be a relief since we’ll be able to provide much more beach front coverage. But it does mean that we have to conduct the bulk of our training over a short period of time.

During the next month we’ll train the rookie lifeguards, hold a week long lifeguard supervisor academy, implement tourism training courses with the Park Board, conduct a certification course for dispatchers, participate in a large scale scenario with our public safety partners, conduct six CPR classes including two for the Park Board staff, train surf camp instructors, run two separate personal water craft rescue courses, and hold our traditional “night swim” ultimate lifeguard physical challenge. Oh, and work the busiest holiday and the busiest part of the summer season. Fortunately we have an exceptional Training Officer, Sgt. Kara Harrison, who will be coordinating this three ring training circus.

Although all this training is mandated by one group or another, it sometimes feels like overkill. It’s exhausting, but you really see the value when you see the crew in action. A comprehensive training program directly translates to lives saved.

Last weekend Supervisor David Nash was patrolling with Senior Guard John Garcia at 53rd when they got a call that a man ran into another car and was slumped over the wheel and not breathing at 57th and seawall. They quickly made it there to find Galveston Police Officer Sean Migues had pulled the man out of the car. Sean is an ex Beach Patrol Supervisor/Officer who is also a Paramedic and Firefighter. GPD Chief Henry Porretto has a knack for putting the right people in the right places and Sean, a very affable, tourist friendly guy, works the parking detail on the seawall. Sean had already started CPR and David and John grabbed the automatic external defibrillator from the truck and quickly gave the patient two shocks which reportedly restarted the man’s heart. EMS arrived shortly after and took over care.

All three of these rescuers are heroes. But each has also had hundreds or even thousands of hours of training that led to such an efficient and professional response.

So when you drive down the seawall on Memorial Weekend and see all the men and women out working the lifeguard towers, patrol cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, know that each of them has committed a good portion of their lives to the training that enabled them to earn the right and privilege to be the one that might one day save you or your loved one.

50 Years

The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) is America’s non-profit open water lifesaving organization. They provide certification standards for beach and lake guards, public education material, publish statistical information, oversee lifesaving sport, reward heroic acts, advocate for drowning reduction in open water, and much more. Last week the 50th anniversary of the present form of the organization was held in Huntington Beach, California, along with the biannual board of directors meeting and educational conference.

Lifesaving in the United States originated in the northeast and many older coastal communities, including Galveston had life houses staffed by the US Lifesaving Service in the late 1800s. In fact, here in Galveston, we go back at least as far as 1875. But California was an appropriate venue because the immediate roots for the USLA came from a west coast based organization. A few forward thinking  individuals made trips around the US  promoting the concept of one group in the US that could oversee open water lifeguarding. They found fertile ground here in the likes of Jim McCloy, Vic Maceo, and Joe Max Taylor who saw the value of a modern, professionally run lifeguard service in a beach town that relies so heavily on tourism.

In 1957 a group of US mainland and Hawaiian lifeguards went to Australia to compete in their national lifeguard championships. Their names read like a who’s who of the history of lifeguarding in the US. Duke Kahanameka (introduced surfing to the mainland and other parts of the world), Greg Noll (one of the pioneers of big wave surfing),  and Bob Burnside (inventor of the hard plastic rescue can, world champion body surfer, LA County Lifeguard Chief). They had 120,000 spectators for the event and the US team did remarkably well. Additionally, they showed off the balsa surf board/rescue board and the rescue can. Up to that point, the Aussies had been using a heavier board and had been swimming a line out to victims. Both new innovations spread like wildfire in an aquatically conscious culture like Australia. Three of the original team members, now in their 80’s were present and a video of the original footage was shown. As you would imagine, the stories in the bar afterwards were pretty thick!

One thing that was really nice was that the whole event really promoted the commonalities that lifeguards and lifeguard organization share. Despite the decades this diverse group worked, or the part of the country, everyone seemed to be aware that although each areas has its own unique challenges there are common threads that run through the entire profession.

As always I was happy to get home. I drove across the causeway feeling like part of the overarching lifeguard family. But then I saw the seawall and knew only a Texas guard would have any clue how to work in the huge piles seaweed that blanketed the beach. Our maintenance crews are taking care of it and things will look good soon, but either way, there’s no place like home!

Easter, Menard, and Burgers

Sunday was a good day.

Finally! We finally got the weather we all love. And it actually happened on Easter Weekend. It was perfect with sunny conditions, mild temperatures, flat blue/green water, and heaps of people out enjoying themselves. The crowds were well behaved and everyone seemed to be really thankful for finally getting the chance to hang out on the beach.

I enjoyed the entire weekend. It was great to drive the beaches and finally see so many local and tourist families making sandcastles, swimming, laying out, cooking BBQ, and getting to spend quality time with each other. It was one of those times that makes you thankful for the life choices you’ve made to put you where you are. We had a good turnout Saturday morning for lifeguard requalification and tryouts as well.

Sunday I started my normal high season weekend routine. I like the weekends because I get to do what I originally joined Beach Patrol to do- spend time helping people on the beach. I got up early and checked the entire beach and then had a good long surf-ski (a long, skinny kayak) workout in the ocean. Next I checked the beaches again and got to our headquarters to meet with the second shift guards before they went out to their towers.

After a few administrative duties I had my Sunday indulgence that I look forward to all week- a Whataburger! Generally, I try to eat fairly healthy but this is different. My Grandma and I were close and, after an injury, she relocated from her apartment into an assisted living space. She was kept on a strict diet, but on Sundays, she’d give me a call and say, “Are you bringing my package?” So I’d sneak in two Whataburgers in a backpack, we’d barricade her door to keep out potential snitches, and get to business!

As I went through the drive through the food took a while, so I chatted with the woman working. She was telling me about a reunion she’d been to the day before up on the beach at 29th. She grew up in the neighborhood around Menard Park and many of the old crew have moved out. They all still get together each year for Easter for a friends and family reunion.

Back when I started working as a tower guard I was assigned to 29th most of the summer. There were huge neighborhood parties across the street every Sunday and all the kids came down to my beach to play. I never had to bring lunch as someone always showed up at my tower with a huge plate of food to thank me for watching the kids. When I got off-duty a group of guys around my age would move over to the beach side of the seawall. I’d tell them the trouble spots and they’d keep the kids safe well into the night. Talking about those days brought back some good memories.

Like I said, Sunday was a good day.