The 4th

Summer is flying by. There have been so many people on the beach that even weekdays feel like weekends. As busy as it’s been even all of our rookie lifeguards have gotten a good amount experience under their belts which helps things run smoothly. We’re already to the 4th of July weekend!

The beach has shifted into its summer pattern. Tides have dropped from spring to summer levels. We requested that the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board move our towers closer to the shoreline. Winds and waves have started dropping and we’re bouncing between green (calm condition) flags and yellow (caution).

The water is full of all kinds of critters now so we’ve been seeing a few jellyfish stings and an occasional stingray hit. This is still pretty minimal when you compare it to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, but more than we were seeing a month ago. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or salt water if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short time event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

We would really like to thank all of you that attended our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser or sent in donations. Well over a thousand people came to support, swap stories, eat food, and hang out. It ended up being a perfect night and a really good time. We really appreciate all the support and it was good to have all the friends, supporters, and beach people in one place!

If you or yours are headed to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard and don’t check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway. Stay far away from groins and piers.  Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child or on boats.  One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, food, and beer that brings this on? But it’s an easy thing to prevent if you remember to stay hydrated (no my fellow Texans, beer doesn’t count!), wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses.

Have a great holiday!

Canine Rescue

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas was on his way to work early the other day in his personal car. He lives on the west end and was just nearing the end of the seawall. It was in the height of tropical storm Bill and the wind was blasting, so he was driving carefully. Suddenly his radio crackled as an emergency call came through.

Apparently a man had been on the edge of the seawall looking at the huge surf as it bashed against the seawall and sent plumes of foam over the top of the wall. The tide was really high so you could hardly see the rocks at the base of the wall as wave after wave pounded in. His dog became excited and jumped off the wall.

The west end of the seawall has long been a trouble spot for the Beach Patrol. When the current sweeps from west to east people can get caught in the ever present rip current at western side of the wall and swept around in front of the wall. They can’t swim back the way they came, and there’s no beach in front of the seawall. When the tide is high and there are waves, you have to get over the rocks while the waves break on you. Then, you have to find a stairwell, and there aren’t many in the area. We’ve made many dramatic rescues using rescue boards to ride people over the rocks, often with the fire department lifting them up the wall.

As Joe pulled up he looked over the wall to see the 80 pound dog in big trouble. The poor dog’s pads were bleeding from multiple attempts to climb to the top of the wall, only to be repeatedly dragged down the wall between waves.

A GPD K9 unit and the animal control unit arrived right behind Joe.

He grabbed a rope from the animal control unit that was being used to try and lasso the dog. He then asked the officers and bystanders to lower him down the seawall so he could grab it. The plan was that once he had the dog they could pull him up and over the seawall.

He improvised a harness which he tied around himself and was then lowered down the seawall.

His first attempt to grab the dog was unsuccessful as a wave hit them both, causing him to lose his grip as he was tossed around by the powerful surf. On the second wave he was able to grab the dog and place him higher on his shoulder which gave him a more secure grip on the big canine.

As the peace officers and bystanders hauled them up, they were hit by numerous waves which slammed them against the wall. But Joe held fast and didn’t lose his grip.

As they finally neared the top of the wall, Joe passed the dog to his owner, and then he pulled himself over the top of the wall to safety.

All we heard on the radio was:

“Cerdas back in, one canine rescue”.

FOT6AA8

BBQ and Recognition

It’s been a rough summer. The guards have performed under all kinds of adverse conditions admirably. Come support them tonight for our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser. This is the beach party of the year with well over a thousand Lifeguards, Junior Guards, water people, beach lovers and supporters of the various groups that work so hard to keep our beaches safe, clean, and enjoyable.

This year we’ll have it in our traditional spot at 24th and Post office and the base will be the Press Box from 6-10. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet you can buy one at the door. Music provided by DJ Joe Rios and luau style BBQ cooked up and served by the Galveston Rugby Team. There will be a silent auction as well. Proceeds benefit the Lifeguards and Junior Guards and help cover the cost of competing at the national lifeguard championships and various water safety projects. The Press Box is owned by none other than Rudy Betancourt, long time Beach Patrol Lifeguard and 100% G-Town local.

Last week we had the honor of giving awards to all the groups that came together to support the search for the 12 year old girl who drowned at 56th street. An unbelievable amount of volunteers, including family members, aided in the search. Food and lodging were provided while public safety personnel from a myriad of agencies spent untold amounts of time searching. We wanted to do something to recognize them. The sensitivity, perseverance, and altruism these scores of people showed is hard to describe. The intent was not to detract in any way from the unbelievable loss that the family is facing. While acknowledging that, our hope was to simultaneously recognize that there is an emotional component to the work the first responders do and they have a need for some type of closure to the incident as well. Hard tightrope to walk.

The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network spent three days with the family providing counseling, translation, and information regarding the search efforts. The Red Roof Inn and 4 Seasons provided rooms and an area for the families of two separate events to base. Tortugas, Kroger, and the Lighthouse Charity Team brought food. The US Coast Guard spent hours of air and water time. Texas Parks and Wildlife put two boats in the water to search, the Sheriff Office and Galveston Police Department Marine Division were ever-present, and the Galveston Fire Department did everything in their power to help. The Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team came out multiple days using volunteer labor to try to speed up the recovery process. They even allowed for walk up volunteer labor at their command post.

It’s not enough. It never can be. But I people have a basic desire to do whatever it is we can do to help others when they need it most. All these groups did everything they could and, at the very least, they showed their love and support through their actions.

 

Beach Patrol Fundraiser Poster2

Sandbars

I got an interesting call from a local woman who told me to write about what it means to “step off a sandbar” and why that can cause someone to drown. The woman, now in her 90’s, said when she was young she had to hand her 3 year old to someone else and trust him to bring her child to shore when she “stepped off a sandbar” herself.

Most of what we focus on in beach safety involves rip currents. Rip currents, responsible for 80% of rescues in the ocean (and presumably drownings) run roughly perpendicular to shore and are formed when water brought in by waves has to find a way back out past the surf zone. In Texas our strongest and most predominant rip currents are formed near a structure like a jetty. This is why we recommend people stay away from the rocks and why we post our towers on the seawall near the groins. If you’re caught in one, float with it and you’ll likely return to shore on your own. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore, but never try to swim directly into a rip current (directly to shore).

The phrase “stepping off a sandbar” refers to times when someone is standing in relatively shallow water and currents or waves push them from the shallow sandbar into a trough where the water is deeper. Just as is the case with rip currents, if you simply relax and float you’ll be fine, but bad things happen when people panic or choke on water.

At our beaches we have a sandbar and trough system, both of which run parallel to the shoreline. As you walk into the water from shore you’ll step into deeper water, then shallower water, than deeper, shallower, and so on. Gradually it gets deeper and deeper but we have 4-5 sandbars and troughs before it gets deep enough for the bottom to level off. The sandbars farther from shore need bigger waves to break on them but the first couple are easy to spot by the breaking waves even from shore. Waves break in water about 1.3 times their height, so an experienced guard or person can tell water depth by looking at the waves. The waves don’t break in the deeper water so the troughs are calm looking areas between the sandbars.

The difference in depth between the sandbars and troughs is exacerbated by long shore current, which runs parallel to shore. The longer and harder it runs, the deeper the troughs. Generally when the current lets up the bottom levels off to normal in a couple of days, but this past week it was so calm that the normal “jiggling” of the bottom sand didn’t happen and there was a neck deep trough very near the shoreline all week.

Generally the most important way to be safe is to swim near a lifeguard, but it’s also a good idea to stay in shallower water than you would in an artificial environment.

GC Speech

Galveston Police Department Chief Henry Porretto and I both sit on the advisory board for the Galveston College Law Enforcement Academy. Last week we both had the honor to speak to the graduating class. Chief Porretto did an excellent talk about the core values of a peace officer, so I chose to focus on the idea of compassion through public safety work. In light of last week’s drowning of a 12 year old girl, excerpts of this seem especially poignant and I’d like to share them with you.

“…there’s something special about each of you that put you in this room today. You want to- you need to- make a difference.

A peace officer is entrusted with unbelievable power. The ability to take away someone’s freedom should never be taken lightly. You have trained and will continue to train on how to do that responsibly and professionally while protecting you, the public, and fellow officers as much as possible. But that isn’t the most powerful tool in your tool belt. Nor is your weapons and self-defense training, or even all that information crammed in your head right now…

…You have chosen a career that will put you with people on the worst day of their entire lives. It is one of the most intimate moments that humans experience. It is during these moments- these horrible times- that our lives fork. There are few moments in all of our lives where we knowingly or unknowingly choose a path that becomes destiny. You will be with people as they go through this. And it’s not like in the movies with fuzzy light and perfect skin and sparkly backgrounds. Normally reasonable people will be bleeding, spitting, cussing, fighting, and they may focus all their hate on you during this time. They will at these times be at their most… unlovable. And you have the horrible responsibility and unbelievable privilege of sharing these moments with them. Your actions in these brief moments can determine the course of their lives- and those of everyone they’re connected to.

Most of what emergency responders do, particularly peace officers, isn’t black and white. It is in this grey area that you can use the most powerful tool in your possession. It’s in this grey area that your power is the greatest, you’re integrity shines brightest, and your choices the most critical. Officer discretion. Some people need to go to jail. Others don’t need any help from you. But a large percentage of your calls are in that grey zone. Use your power of discretion to do what good cops do best. Solve problems and show compassion. The choices you make during these moments will affect the rest of their lives- and the lives of people they are close to or even who they encounter.

In those intimate moments you share with complete strangers your compassion can be the drop that causes the ripple that makes the difference.”…

What If

In this line of work saying “What If?” can be dangerous. Would this bad thing had happened if we had or hadn’t……? It’s better to use all the data and statistics you have coupled with what your team’s cumulative experience is. Sprinkle in what your gut tells you and shake it up- then decide a course of action. Once you’ve made the call its best to not torment yourself with second guesses.

This past weekend could have been full of those moments if any of us had time for introspection. At one point we had three calls working almost simultaneously on Monday. A jet ski floating around in the bay with no owner, an unconscious man at Stewart Beach that had been in the water, and a possible drowning at East Beach stretched our resources to the limit. Fortunately all ended well for those situations but it really made us appreciate our partner agencies who were there with us for these three events and for many others throughout the weekend. We really can’t say thank you enough for the CERT Team (Strike Team #1) whose public safety volunteers helped to move several hundred people out of the waters of the San Luis Pass, Galveston Fire/EMS/Police and Park Board Security and Park Staff who were there at every major event, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network who offered free counseling to lifeguards who gave CPR to a submerged man, and to our amazing National Weather Service Houston/Galveston office who kept us up on the latest weather all the way through the weekend. It’s good to have partners and friends who are there when you need them most.

Mostly though I’d like to thank my staff who did an unbelievable job protecting hundreds of thousands of tourists in unbelievably rough water, blasting wind, and the most adverse conditions imaginable. Many worked longer hours and extra shifts when it became obvious that this was an exceptionally challenging and dangerous situation. By the end of the weekend they’d moved over 3,000 people away from rip currents and closer to shore, made rescues, reunited lost kids, treated medical emergencies, enforced rules, and offered water safety and tourist information to hundreds.

I’d like to finish by doing what I said I shouldn’t and asking two big “What ifs?”

The first is what if Supervisor Kris Pompa and several others on our staff hadn’t taken my early spring challenge to provide water safety talks to at least 8,000 kids in the Houston/Galveston area? Kris was on the road for over two months sometimes hitting as many as three schools a day. By May 1st he’d exceeded all expectations by providing beach water safety instruction to 16, 761 students! Each of them spread that info to families and friends. We’ll never know how many accidents will never happen as a result.

Finally, what if Galveston and the Galveston Park Board didn’t provide us the resources to staff those towers, trucks, and boats?

What if?

Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.

Beaches and Risk

Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatamala. It was really steep and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars so no one collapsed on the way up.

We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. Plastic bags can suffocate you. Apple filling is hot.

All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk, but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, child proof caps, security checks, health codes, etc.

It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.

Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering the ocean is something that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 300 safety signs up and down the beach. And we have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But, ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.

There was a terrible, terrible tragedy last Saturday night. It was extremely rough and we held the guards late due to the abnormally large surf, strong currents, and crowds. The lifeguard at 24th called in that there was a swimmer out too far. The swimmer was past the waist deep we recommend for red flag days, but he was neither past the legal swimming limit nor was he in between the “no swimming” signs and the rock groin. And he was not struggling. The man did nothing wrong and our guard not only did nothing wrong, but was being more proactive than could be expected. But the man slipped underwater within just a few seconds without warning and died.

My heart goes out to both the family and our staff who are struggling to come to terms with this.

Compassionate Police Work

“Possible drowning, 25th and Seawall Blvd…” came across the radio from the 911 dispatcher.

I was close and pulled up to the west side of the Pleasure Pier. Not seeing anything, I drove to the east side and spotted someone near the end of the “T-head” swimming towards shore with a strong, overhand stroke. A Galveston Fire Department truck pulled up  on the seawall and another Beach Patrol unit pulled up on the sand and Supervisors Joe Cerdas and Mary Stewart got ready to go in. Not seeing any immediate crisis I asked all responding vehicles to reduce to normal traffic.

Bystanders ran up and said the guy had been yelling at people all morning and acting erratically. I asked Joe to give the guy some distance and signal if he needed help. Joe went in on a rescue board and the guy immediately started cussing and threatening him. Joe signaled, Supervisor Mary Stewart took over command, and I went in as Kevin Knight pulled up on a jet ski. We recognized him as one of our beach regulars and corralled him without any real problems. Usually the guy is pretty calm but this particular day he was really agitated. Two Galveston Police Department Officers were waiting on shore. This is where the real story starts.

Officer Sean Migues worked for Beach Patrol for a number of years. He was also a US Marine that, at one time, was assigned to Presidential security. Sean is one of the two officers that works essentially as a tourist police, mostly on the seawall.

The man was ready to fight and you could tell he was barely under control. We made a ring between him and the water since a water struggle is way more dangerous than on land. But Sean, who is an extremely charismatic and affable guy. maintained such a calm demeanor that the guy couldn’t find a way to explode. Once it was clear that this couldn’t be resolved at the scene and the guy couldn’t be released safely, Sean went to work in earnest. He talked the guy into handcuffs so smoothly  that the guy thought Sean was doing him a favor (which he was). Many peace officers would have just put the guy in jail and let him stay there till his episode passed. Someone else would have had to deal with him soon after. But Sean had a hunch and started making calls and somehow found out that he’d been a psych patient and convinced the hospital to re-admit him. Instead of a couple of days in jail for some small charge Sean got him on a path to correct the root of the problem. Compassionate police work requires more effort, but can be life altering.

Sean and thousands of others like him around the country practice this daily. They don’t make the news, but we are all better because they take the path of more resistance.

The final Beach Patrol tryouts are tomorrow! Info is on our website…

Disco Dog Party

The boat had 4 older men in it. They’d been shark fishing for several hours about a mile and a half off shore near the South Jetty. During that time they’d watched a beautiful sunset, had a few beers, and caught several large sharks. It had gotten dark, although the moon was rising and shining through the light cloud cover. They were talking and enjoying being so far away from the pressures of their daily lives and all the hustle and bustle of the city. There was a gentle lapping of the calm, summer water on the hull of the boat and occasionally they could hear the cry of seagulls.

Suddenly a loud voice broke the silence. “YO! ANY OF YOU DUDES SEEN A DISCO PARTY OUT HERE?!!!” They were startled and shined a light in the general direction of the voice. Shiny gold chains and a medallion shone off a bare chest and a gold lame’ shirt. They sat in shocked silence while the young man paddled past them and out towards the end of the jetty.

Back in younger (and wilder) days on the Beach Patrol we had an annual tradition. Right after the hectic 4th of July weekend we would celebrate by holding an elaborate party called the “Disco Dog Party”.

The rules were that you had to get to the lighthouse on the end of the two mile long South Jetty without using any type of motorized craft and had to wear 70’s clothes. We would use a two person surf boat to haul the heavy equipment like a grill, tape player (this was before CDs), charcoal, food, etc on the 4 mile round trip journey. All the participants would have to paddle out and back on boards, surf-skis, and kayaks. Occasionally, someone would bring a small sailboat.

This particular night we had just finished the hot dogs and were eating them as night came on. The music was cranking and someone turned on a battery powered disco ball they’d brought out there somehow. The lights were shining off of the posts of the lighthouse and some of the guards were starting to dance as Troy Stevens paddled up shouting, “Hey I made it. I think I freaked some shark fishermen out about a half mile back!”

Turns out he did more than “freak them out”. One of the men in the boat was a Texas State Senator, who made calls to the Coast Guard and the county Sheriff. Needless to say, that was the last of the Disco Dog Parties, ending a 9 year long streak of this tradition.

Back in the days of the US Lifesaving Service Saturdays were reserved for parties. My Grandma told me stories about how she and her friends would row boats out to the partially sunken cement ship over by Pelican Island back in the ’20’s. I guess this was the latest iteration of young water people celebrating, but at least they didn’t have a Disco King paddling around in the middle of the ocean!