Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Supervisor Michael Lucero were powering up and down the seawall last Sunday moving swimmer after swimmer away from the rocks. The wind was howling, water was rough, there were strong lateral currents pulling people to the rocks, and the rip currents were really strong. On top of all that the beach was packed, the water and air were both in the ‘80’s, and only a handful of guards were able to come in to work.

They moved a woman away from the rocks on the west side of 17th street, explained the dangers, and raced to the next rock groin to make sure no one was getting too close since their last pass. They covered a zone that went from 37th to 10th street, but other trucks were working other zones along the beach doing the same thing. Even the 6 lifeguards in towers were busy just watching their one area.

A few minutes after they pulled away from 17th street, the 911 dispatcher came up on our radio reporting a call on a possible drowning. Moffett and Lucero raced back to 17th to find the same woman with bystanders having started CPR after finding her face down on the shoreline in shallow water on the opposite side of the rocks. They later learned from witnesses that she’d entered the water again a few minutes after they left outside of the “no swimming” area but was quickly swept to the rocks and got caught in the rip current. The rip currents caused a drop off so she couldn’t stand as the water pulled her away from shore. She struggled and went face down for a couple of minutes before the bystanders found her and pulled her up on the shore to begin CPR.

Moffett and Lucero arrived, ran to the crowd with their medical gear and quickly took over CPR. They got a heartbeat back with the help of the Galveston Fire Department. Police provided crowd control and got witness statements as she was moved up to the Seawall into a waiting ambulance.

By the end of the weekend, we moved about 2,500 people from the dangerous areas near the rocks and responded to quite a few emergency calls.

Monday was the last day for seasonal lifeguards. By the time you read this we will probably have all the towers off the beach for the rest of the year and will be working out of mobile patrol vehicles until next March. We still have quite a bit of warm weather ahead of us. Hopefully we won’t have another weekend like last one.

I am so proud of our staff for how they rise to the occasion when we have these “perfect storms” of warm water, crowds, and rough conditions. But we really hope that the people coming to the beach over the next few weeks realize that patrolling out of a vehicle is way less effective than having guards at each spot and take that personal responsibility to be safe upon themselves.

October is the best month of the year in Galveston for the beach. If the weather was porridge in a Goldilocks story, we’d be the third bowl. Water is still nice and warm, but the air has cooled off just a bit, so you almost hate walking into a building and not spending every available minute outside. And, at least on the weekdays, the press of people has abated. So, when you go out to the beach you usually only share space with a handful of people.

Weekends will still be crowded for a couple of months, and our staff has been busy moving swimmers away from the deep holes and strong rip currents by the groins, making the occasional rescue, and have been getting quite a few after hours calls. Looking at crowd and climate trends we anticipate having some pretty decent weekend crowds to, and possibly into, December.

This is the last weekend for our seasonal lifeguards. We can only work them 7 months out of the year as “seasonal workers”. After this Sunday we’ll be covering the beach with mobile patrols each day. This means emergency response only on the west end, as we focus our efforts on the seawall areas with rock groins. From next Monday until the beach finally shuts down (aside from surfers, fishermen, and visiting Northern Europeans) we’ll be operating using just our year-round staff and will be able to run patrols of two or three trucks a day. These same staff members will rotate to cover “call”, meaning that someone will be available day or night all winter long for emergencies.

If you watch what one of our tower lifeguards does for a day on the seawall, you’ll see them watching swimmers and then getting down to move swimmers away from the rocks repeatedly. These preventative actions keep swimmers out of danger and keep our guards from having to make rescues that are extremely risky for both the victim and rescuer.

Working in a mobile vehicle is another story. We do the best we can to get to swimmers before they get too close, but we’re spread thin and covering a lot of ground, so end up making many more risky rescues.

We encourage you to get out and enjoy the best time of year in Galveston with friends and family. But when you do, remember the lifeguard presence is greatly diminished and the safety net is much smaller. This would be a good time to remind friends and family to stay far away from any structures in the water because they generate powerful rip currents. Know your limits and stay close to shore. Kids and non-swimmers should be in lifejackets. Designate a “water watcher” who is focused at all times on your group.

Lots of other safety information can be found at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com and you’re welcome to get us on the phone or social media if you have questions. And, of course, for emergencies we’re only a 911 call away.

Preventative Actions

For us, the big measure of how much work we do is “preventative actions”. This captures a range of activities anywhere from jumping off the rocks and swimming next to someone in a rip current around the head of the groin to a blanket announcement on a loudspeaker telling people to clear the water because lightning is moving into the area, to talking to a mom on the beach explaining the dangers in the area. We track all of these by calling the numbers in by radio to our dispatcher, who then enters it into our dispatch program. We have a specially designed system that keeps track of the numbers so we can pull out all kinds of statistical data which helps tailor our program to best use our resources in the places and times that are most efficient.

This year so far, we have already hit 293,602 preventative actions, and we’ve still got a ways to go. Last year the total for the entire year was 217,537, and in 2019 we hit 263,170. This is really eye opening, because 2019 was one of Galveston’s busiest years ever. Last year was still high even though the beaches were intermittently closed, and we missed quite a few potentially busy weekends and holidays.

Stats are weird in that you have to really tease out the contributing factors for them to be used for something as practical as to measure the efficacy of a lifeguard service or to measure workload. The number for preventative actions is a good measure of workload, but there are several factors that go into it. The amount of people on the beach is the obvious one, but that alone isn’t too significant since they have to get well on their way to trouble before we intervene. By that I mean, for example, that if a thousand people are swimming between the groins at 53rd and 51st street and the water is completely calm, we won’t have to move many from the rocks. If there is a current running and/or large surf with the same number of people swimming, we could be crazy busy and make hundreds of preventative actions in a matter of a few hours.

Water temperature is another variable. Thousands of people on the beach, but water too cold to swim in for long will keep stats way lower than a few hundred on the beach with warm water. Also, if the water is warm early in the spring and late in the fall as is the trend, our annual stats climb even higher because we’re having to work hard more of the year. In recent history, we’ve been looking at the swimming season as almost the entire year as opposed to just a few months.

And finally, the one that’s not immediately obvious is how many guards we actually have out there working in towers for how much of the year. More guards equate to higher stats related to prevention. Less means less prevention more rescues from vehicles and more drownings.

Storm Response

Coming off the Labor Day weekend we all jumped straight into a hurricane. If we needed a reminder that Mother Nature is completely random and impartial with respect to our needs and wants, we’ve just gotten yet another one. I’m impressed with how quickly we bounce back. Things were opening the very next day and city, county, and Park Board crews jumped right out there and started fixing things like it was, well, a normal occurrence.

Even for us on Beach Patrol, we’ve got “normal” storm prep, response, and recovery down to a science. Coastal Zone crews got our towers off the beach the same day we made the call to pull everything off. It really helps that our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Office is so responsive and proactive. The information we need is always at our fingertips. Once they forecasted tides over 4 feet, we decided to pull the towers off the beach. And when we saw that the wind was going to be over the tropical storm threshold, we decided to go to the additional trouble to get them down to the safe area that we store them in the winter. Coastal Zone Management and the Park Board Parks staff got the zillions of trashcans in the parks and all the way down the entire beachfront off the beach and out of harm’s way as well. That taken care of, we were able to divert our full attention to keeping people safe by making sure they were out of or in very shallow water, stayed far from structures that could cause rip currents, and off rocks once the waves started breaking on top of them. For the most part people were responsive and helpful for this one.

Once the storm passed, we immediately went out and started assessing how many of the 600 or so safety signs we maintain along the beachfront were lost. The next couple of days we had lifeguard crews out there picking signs off the beachfront, jetting stumps out, and re-installing signs that were down. All in all, we had 56 “No Swimming/Wading” signs, 35 “No Swimming” signs, 16 “No Swimming” icon signs, and 9 rescue buoy boxes go down. Many of these we were able to re-use by picking them up and re-installing them. Still, many were damaged or lost completely and had to be replaced with new ones. We’re still tallying but looks like it will be a bit over $20,000 worth of damage. The good thing is that we keep a roughly 30% reserve for just this occasion, so we have signs ready to pop back up there as we’re having new ones made to replace the reserve. We want to shorten the time the signs are down as much as possible for obvious reasons. In this case looks like we are able to get everything fully operational, including getting towers back out on the beach, in time for this weekend. We want to make sure all is good to go by the time the beach goers arrive.

 

 

Courtesy of Twitter
Justin Michaels (@JMichaelsNews) | Twitter
and The Weather Channel

Labord Day and kids with a bucket

“Mr. Lifeguard, Mr. Lifeguard look what we caught!”

I turned around to see three cute kids running at me with a pail of water that was sloshing over the side. Dad followed them shrugging and smiling sheepishly as if to say, “Its out of my hands”.

Looking into the bucket I saw a mass of Japanese Jellyfish. Not the nice kind with the little almost clear, rice noodle looking stringy tentacles either. But the big mean ones with the brown, ropey, thick tentacles that bring back bad memories of swimming workouts gone bad and parents looking at me accusingly as I try to explain that I can’t magically make the pain go away that their kids are experiencing.

But this was a good thing. With Dad’s permission I explained that the current treatment is to rinse the water with saline, remove any tentacles that may be still on the skin, and rinse again thoroughly. Afterwards, you can treat for pain with ice or topical anesthetic. I drew a diagram in the sand of a tentacle and talked about the thousands of stinging cells, or nematocyst, in each square inch. And how each nematocyst can shoot out a tiny barb, or nematode that causes pain. Only about 10% of the nematodes typically fire when the tentacle contacts skin, so rinsing it in saline, or salt water, will help to wash away those cells that haven’t fired yet. That’s why we don’t use vinegar, uric acid, diluted bleach, alcohol, or any number of other treatments we’ve been through in the past. And why lots of home remedies like rubbing the area with wet sand, chewing tobacco, etc. usually make it worse.

We’d hit the max attention span for a 5–6-year-old, and the kids ran off to let the jellyfish free as I called in to our dispatcher “four water safety talks”.  As I turned back to what I was doing, I though about how cool it is that we get to have this type of interaction with tourists all the time, all over the beach, all year. In fact, last year, including school talks, we made over 30,000 “water safety talks” along with thousands of “tourist contacts” where we give out local information about the beach or about Galveston.

Labor Day weekend marked the end of the busiest part of the season, although beach activity will likely continue until the end of November or even into early December. This past weekend we were busy but not slammed. It was comparable to many of the busy weekends we’ve seen throughout the summer. We ended up moving over 12,000 people from dangerous areas, responding to 318 medical calls (most were jellyfish stings), made 3 water rescues, reunited 7 lost children with their parents, and made 147 enforcements along the beach. We also had 1,382 water safety contacts, similar to my discussion with the kids with the bucket of jellyfish.

At the end of the day, it’s the personal contacts that prevent drownings and keep our guests coming back.

 

 

Image courtesy of KSAT

Heat

The knock on the door in the late afternoon wasn’t a surprise. Nor was the woman in her 70’s who was dizzy, a little disoriented, and sweating. Our Headquarters doubles as a first aid station for beach patrons, so its not unusual for people to show up with all kinds of medical emergencies including heat exhaustion. In this particular case, after taking her vitals and getting some medical history as well as an inventory of what she’d eaten, drank, and been doing for the day, we decided to rehydrate her and monitor her to see if she improved. After an hour or so she and her family left with a reminder to seek quick medical attention if the symptoms returned.

We are in some weird weather patterns fluctuating between storms and heat waves. Although in Galveston the actual temperature isn’t really that high, the real thing that worries us is the heat index, which is a combination of relative humidity and air temperature. When the relative humidity is over 60% it hampers with sweat evaporation and hinders your body’s ability to cool itself. Since in Galveston the humidity is pretty much always over 60% heat related illnesses are an ever-present danger in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is the first stage of heat related illness and is usually accompanied by some type of dehydration. We see heat exhaustion often on the beach in late summer. Many people spend the whole day in the heat and sun and often aren’t used to those conditions. Sometimes people who are outside regularly forget to hydrate or drink beverages that hasten dehydration. Generally, people will be confused, nauseous, dizzy, lightheaded, tired, have headaches or cramps, have pale or clammy skin, sweat profusely, and/or have a rapid heartbeat.

Normally, as was the case for this woman, this is enough, and we are able to treat at the scene and release them with a warning to take it easy for the next few hours or even days. This would be one example of the roughly 1,800 calls we’re able to filter for EMS annually. But if these measures don’t show improvement within a few minutes, we call for EMS because heat exhaustion can progress rapidly to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a critical life-threatening situation, so we want to avoid it if at all possible.

An important, but not well known, issue that affects our guards and people that are on the beach all the time is that of cumulative dehydration. New lifeguards often find that on the second week of work they are dizzy when they stand up or have stomach issues. They don’t feel thirsty so there’s no clue that they have become more and more dehydrated. Until they learn that they need to drink close to two gallons of water a day even if they’re not thirsty it will continue and worsen.

Living where we do in Galveston County it’s important that we are consciously aware of the effects and dangers of heat and sun and takes steps to mitigate them.

 

picture courtesy of news.okstate.edu

Lightning Policy

WHACK! I didn’t remember seeing a flash or hearing thunder, but my ears were ringing. I looked around and it felt like I’d just woken up. My heart was beating pretty quickly, and my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I noticed a volleyball court pole about 15 yards away was split in half and shards of wood were scattered in a radius of 20 feet or so from the pole.

Suddenly it was if a fog cleared, and I remembered dispatch had radioed with a warning about a storm cell moving in the area and realized two guards were on a metal 4 wheeler 3 miles down the beach in the direction the storm was moving. We were helping set up for a footrace on Stewart Beach. On the way there, two more bolts hit close enough that I couldn’t tell a time difference between the bang and the flash, but I never saw where they hit. When I got there, the three of us huddled in my truck, windows up, without touching the sides or radios.  We canceled the event.

The United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org) and the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) years back formed a task force that I was on to establish procedures to notify the public on our nation’s beaches when lightning poses a threat. I learned a great deal, but the main points were that the general public should seek shelter in a closed building that’s grounded or a vehicle when they hear thunder. Open buildings, non-grounded shelters, or just getting out of the water and on the beach does not protect you or your family. Armed with that information we in the United States Lifesaving Association came up with a template and guidelines for beach lifeguard agencies to use to establish policies for protecting both the public and their staff from lightening strikes.

Our Supervisors have been revisiting this policy recently to try to tighten up some of the cracks. They’re really committed to protecting people and it’s been a good discussion which was facilitated by Supervisor Micah Fowler. As is recommended, we pull the guards from most of the towers and notify the beachgoing public via PA systems to seek shelter in a vehicle or building when lightning strikes within 10 miles of where they are. We have two fancy towers that are grounded that we’re able to leave guards in, but the other 29 towers we clear. Sounds good on paper, but we’re talking about 33 miles of beach and potentially as many as 150,000 people. And often we aren’t able to get back to the same area quickly enough when we put the guards back up and its safe to get back out there.

So, the consensus is that the best approach is to have the guards drop their flags to show the area isn’t’ guarded and include in the announcements that when the guards return the lightning is no longer a threat.

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

SHARKS

Nat Geo ran a documentary story this week about sharks and played an interview I did with them a while back. Whenever Shark Week rolls around people start seeing things in our water  and reporting them. They’re almost always a dolphin’s pectoral fin since you really wouldn’t spot a shark from the shoreline very often, but people can still get pretty worked up about anything to do with sharks. There are a lot of sharks in the Gulf and they capture the imagination.

But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 7 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty favorably… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations, and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example, in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz, I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal seen from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them, they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while leaking blood- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution, you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer