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.

 

Special Event Safety

Tomorrow morning we’ll have our second lifeguard tryouts of the season. Candidates that are able to swim 500 meters in 9 minutes or less and pass a drug test and interview will have a shot at being beach lifeguards this summer. Our last tryout is May 10th. All the candidates who pass the initial screening will test their skills in a grueling double run-swim-run event in the surf. Completing this event will qualify them to enter our 100 hour lifeguard academy. Those that make it through this intense course will join the ranks of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguard staff.

Setting up for the run-swim-run event is quite a production. Two careful head counts take place before and after the event. The guards that work the event have a safety briefing before and a debriefing afterwards. At least one personal water craft (Jet Ski) with an operator and rescuer on board will be in the water overseeing the 8 or so seasoned lifeguards on rescue boards who work a zone formation. All candidates are checked at the finish line.

People in our line of work know how quickly bad things can happen and that eventually they will. It pays to be consistently prepared for any contingency and to put the extra effort in before the crisis. The best you can hope for is that you are over prepared and have safety systems in place that don’t need to be implemented.

This philosophy of risk mitigation is something that communities like ours with lots of tourism, special events, and sporting competitions each year need to embrace fully. With proper preparation and adequate resources we can minimize the number of bad things that happen.

Triathlons are notorious for providing a lot of resources and coverage on the land portions but almost nothing for water safety, where there is arguably greater risk. Minor issues on land that are easily detected and addressed can cause a quick death when they occur in the water.  Organizers will spend thousands of dollars making sure the bike and run legs have plenty of officers and paid staff members to direct traffic and keep the athletes and cars separated. Meanwhile, there may be some pool guards, a couple of boats and/or untrained volunteers in kayaks watching the swimmers, the majority of whom have little or no experience swimming in open water.

A couple of weeks ago the Beach Patrol coordinated a team including Police/Sheriff dive team, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Ironman staff, and a volunteer kayak club. We collectively worked the swim portion of the Memorial Herman Ironman triathlon. Fortunately we were prepared and given adequate resources. The first part of the swim had a strong headwind that caused the swimmers lots of unexpected problems. It could have been catastrophic. But by the end of the event we’d made 36 rescues and 115 swim assists with no drownings or serious injuries.

Whether we’re talking about special events or managing tourism it helps to be imbedded in a community that understands the economic and social value of proper preparation.

 

Oil Spill

Since the oil spill, life has been a blur of meetings, reports, surveys, and passing endless streams of information both up and down the chain of command.

The typical day for me has been to wake up at 4:45 and get to the joint command at the convention center by about 5:50. After checking in, I’d have a quick chat with Charley Kelly and Rosana Beharry from our city Emergency Operation Center to talk about what transpired during the evening the day before and the night. The morning briefing precedes smaller meetings, writing reports and sending them out, surveying beaches, getting input from beach cleaning and park staff and passing that back to the unified command.

Charley and Rosana have been been pulling 12hour shifts in the command center, along with representatives from the Coast Guard, GLO, wildlife recovery groups, NOAA, the responsible party and others. When not on their designated shifts, they’ve been in contact when issues arise, which has been basically 24 hours a day.

Charley and Rosana have represented all of our interests very well, but they are not alone in this level of dedication. The entire command center, which vaguely resembles the NASA control room, is divided up into groups overseeing operations, resource procurement, finance, command, wildlife, environmental testing, liaison, media relations etc. Each person in each group has worked untold hours at breakneck speed to handle this complicated event as it unfolded. All of this has been orchestrated using the guidelines of the national incident management system. Each person and group knows their specific role and how to interface in the most efficient way with the whole. All the information relevant to the city funneled through our local emergency operation coordinators to the appropriate groups. Since the beaches and some parks were impacted, much of this went through me to various departments of the Park Board.

The Park Board Beach Maintenance and Parks staff has been invaluable in surveying and reporting developments, as has been my staff. I’ve been so thankful for all they’ve done as well as city staff and the Tourism and Development and Administrative Departments of the Park Board. But I’d expect that from locals that have so much invested in our beaches, parks and tourism. What I didn’t expect is the response from all the different groups that came here to help.

As of Tuesday, over 15,000 workers have recovered 5,515.5 barrels of mixed oil and water, 116,304 bags of oily solids, and 672.87 barrels of decanted oil. Volunteers and professionals have captured, rehabbed, or recovered 578 animals. Countless volunteers have been checking the beaches, orchestrated by the Galveston Bay Foundation.

It’s been a humbling experience to see so many dedicated people work so hard.  The Coast Guard has done an amazing job coordinating everything and the responsible party has really stepped up. The speed, efficiency, and commitment of all the responding parties not only deserves our gratitude but, for me, has renewed faith in our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that supports others and the environment.

Texas City ‘Y’ Oil Spill Information

Oil Spill Cleanup Efforts
For updates on the entire scope of the Texas City “Y” Oil Spill, a website has been created where press releases are being posted. For the most current information, visit http://www.texascityyresponse.com.

Weekend Beach Forecast

While some oil remains on the east end of Galveston Island and Sea Wolf Park area of Pelican Island, clean-up efforts are making progress and environmental testing approved by Unified Command indicates that oil-related compounds are not present at levels that would pose a human health-concern. The beaches along the Gulf are open as usual! Check out the Final Galveston and SeaWolf Park Statement for more information.

The health department has released a public health statement in relation to the oil spill and precautions people should take if they come in contact with oil.

To see live, real-time video fo the beaches, visit: www.galveston.com/webcams

Birds Impacted by Spill
The impact of the spill on birds and wildlife in the Galveston Bay area has been tragic, however we are happy to report that Wildlife Response Services is working very diligently to clean and care for the animals they’ve been able to capture, having saved many of them. Assessment crews are out scanning the coast and are reporting any oiled birds or other wildlife to Wildlife Response Services, which is then taking the animals to its rehabilitation center to clean and care for them. The public is reminded to refrain from capturing any potentially affected wildlife and is urged to contact 1-(888)-384-2000 if oiled wildlife is observed. Reporting photos of wildlife can also be emailed to wildlife@co.galveston.tx.us.

Health/Safety Updates
The Galveston County Health Department released a Galveston Bay Oil Spill Public Health Statement. Please read by clicking the link below:
http://www.gchd.org/press/2014/Galveston-Bay-Oil-Spill-Statement.html

Important Contact Numbers

Bolivar Ferry
409.795.2230

Wildlife Response Services
888.384.2000
If you encounter wildlife that has been in contact with oil, please contact the Wildlife Response Services number listed above.

Joint Information Center
713.435.1505

Claims Number
855.276.1275
A claims number has been established for persons or businesses that may be impacted by the oil spill incident.

Beach Patrol Dispatch
409.763.4769