Mary’s Rescue

Last Saturday we almost lost several lives, including one of our lifeguards.

The incident started relatively harmlessly. 5 people were swimming between the Pleasure Pier and the 27th street groin. There was a spot where there was a very weak rip current. A gentle drift that pushing offshore. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But the 5 people were having a bit of difficulty returning.

The lifeguard from the nearest tower went to check. When the rescue truck made the scene they called in that no one was in distress but that Supervisor Mary Stewart was going to go in and help the guard move them closer to shore.

As they do at times, things escalated rapidly. Three of the victims, escorted by the tower guard’s made it in with minimal help. This is normal stuff. Two of them, a child and a man who went to help the group to shore, were floating on Mary’s rescue tube as she towed them to shore. It was, at this point, a simple rescue like the multitude our guards make each year.

But suddenly Mary was pulled underwater. It seems that the man started panicking. She was instantly catapulted from a situation where she was making a routine rescue, like she has done scores of times in her 11 year career as a lifeguard, to a struggle for her very life and the life of the two people she was trying to help.

As she tried to hold the child up she grappled with the man. There were times she felt like she’d have to make the choice between letting go of the child to try and save herself, or giving up and going down. All three lives hung in the balance.

In Mary’s words, “…someone’s life was slipping from the palm of my hand, as I struggled to maintain mine. The feeling of being someone’s only hope to live, while trying to hold onto your [own life] at the same time is indescribable. In an instance your whole life flashes before your eyes; every struggle, every tear, every laugh, every smile. You don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”

In the end, her grit, training, fitness level, and fellow lifeguards gave this near tragedy a happy ending. Everyone made it to shore and lived to tell.

Every lifeguard who works enough time faces what Mary faced. A moment when you realize that fitness, training, and good intentions only get you so far. You have to dig deep beyond the physical part of you and draw strength from…somewhere else. And then, after passing though the crucible, you realize what you are and what you are actually capable of.

Mary later wrote, “For those of you fighting unbearable battles or drowning in despair- refuse to give up, refuse to sink… Your real hero is right there holding on to your…hand. And if you hold on long enough , you may just get the chance to be [a hero yourself.”

TACP

On the beach we have a multitude of special events, many of which the general public is never aware. One of the most interesting one is a small one we’ve been helping to support for a couple of years.

The TACP (Tactical Air Control Party) 24 Hour Challenge Fundraiser event is something that any sane person would avoid like the plague. Unfortunately many of our lifeguards are not “sane”. Austin Kirwin is one of our most exceptional employees. He’s one of our year round Supervisor/Peace Officer/EMT crew, an amazing athlete, and is a member of the Air Force National Guard, based at Ellington Field. His specialty is that of a TACP, so is part of a unique brotherhood.

For those like me who didn’t know, an Air Force TACP is the liaison between the Army and Air Force and is deployed with Army groups to advise ground commanders on the best use of air power, maintain communications, and provide terminal guidance for close air support.

The TACP Association is a non-profit organization that serves as a support structure for the TACP Community. Members consist of current and former TACPs, their families and the people who support the TACP mission. They have no paid staff and 100% of their budget goes towards the benefit of their community and mission, which is to “Remember the fallen, honor the living, and aid brothers in need”. The Association has provided support of several TACPs who were wounded in action and have assisted the families of TACPs killed in action. They strive to relieve the financial pressure of the members and families during tragedies so that healing and mourning may occur.

The 24 Hour Challenge Fundraiser will be based in our office at Stewart Beach starting at noon on March 23rd and continuing all the way to noon on the 24th. They will work in a team and there must be at least one person running at all times during the challenge. The cumulative miles of each team will be scored. There is also a category for ultra runners, which adds up the miles of two person teams.

This all sounds like good fun until you look at some stats. Nationwide they had 5,153 runners and they completed a total of 1,222.4 miles per each of 333 teams in four countries, for a total of 37,037.7 miles. That means they ran the equivalent of 1.5 times the circumference of the earth. The 8 Ultra teams ran 980.6 miles and averaged 61.3 miles per runner.

So if you see some really fit, tired, hard core men and women running down the beach the morning of the 24th, give our hometown Beach Patrol hero Austin a shout. They’ll have a setup on the SW corner of the pavilion and you can sign up to run whatever distance you want. Your miles count.

The event may be small compared to some others, but it gives a glimpse into the lives of some really dedicated men and women who are not only amazing athletes and humanitarians, but are true patriots.

 

 

Storm Scare

A pop up storm can cause us to walk a tightrope and really highlights the interdependence of the groups that care for and protect our beaches.

 

History shows us that a tide of more than 3.5 feet above average puts our lifeguard towers at risk, which potentially could cost several hundred thousand dollars. It’s also been demonstrated that if we wait too long to get down there and move the towers, we can reach the point of no return where the equipment to move them can’t get down there, and high water, strong winds and sometimes lightning can put our crews at undue risk. The problem is that the farther we are out from the weather event the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 

This week really demonstrated how this works and how much we rely on our partners. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service predicted terrible weather headed our way. By terrible, we’re talking about up to 10 inches of rain in some areas, potential lightning, hail, and tornados, and tidal surge coupled with 30 mph winds and offshore waves of up to 15 feet. Bad. But the tides were only predicted to be around 3 or 3 ½ feet, which under “normal” circumstances wouldn’t warrant all the trouble, expense, and potential damage that moving all 31 towers off of the beach would incur.

 

The NWS office put out updates every few hours and we, as well as the other public safety agencies and city staff, had been following them closely. Our Emergency Management Office kept checking to make sure we all had the latest info as well. I can’t really adequately explain how much the NWS crew does for us and all the other groups they work with including the general public. One example is that one of the guys up there who is also a friend sent me a text late Monday evening saying that the projected offshore wave height had increased and that there was a good chance that on the beach the waves and wind could push that maximum tidal height up even more and could potentially cause the water to reach the base of the seawall. Talk about a hot tip!

 

So, at 10:30 at night I called Jesse Ojeda, who heads up the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board. Without hesitation his answer was, “We’ll start at 5am”. Wow! By the time I checked with him at 6:30 they’d already gotten half of them up to the top of the seawall where they’d be safe. And since the wind wasn’t going to blow harder than about 30mph we didn’t have to truck them all the way to another part of the island.

 

Good to have friends!

 

Stay tuned because lifeguard tryouts and spring break start tomorrow. Time to start the beach season!

Drownings

Here in a beach town we’ve always been acutely aware of the dangers of drowning and the potential effect on the local economy, but few of us stop to think about the global implications.

According to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. There are an estimated 372,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide, but they admit that this number may be grossly underreported.

In the U.S., 45% of drowning deaths are among the most economically active segment of the population. Coastal drowning in the United States alone accounts for 273 million each year in direct and indirect costs.

For years we’ve been using different terminology to describe drowning events. Here in our part of the planet we’ve traditionally used the term “drowning” to mean death. “Near drowning” was an event where someone was submerged but survived. “Secondary drowning” meant they survived, but died later. Then there were “wet” and “dry” drownings which referred to whether or not the lungs were full of water or relatively empty upon recovery of the body. Other places used different terminology to describe the same things.

To try to standardize this and help coordinate research the W.H.O. put out a new definition of drowning a few years back. Now the official definition is that “drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid”. They also classified the outcomes as “death, morbidity and no morbidity”. So some type of liquid blocks your ability to breath and you either die or survive. If you die immediately your condition is defined as a “death by drowning” or a “drowning death”.

If someone is struggling in the water at 47th and Seawall and they go under water for a few seconds or minutes but are saved by a lifeguard and brought to shore and lives to tell about it the event is described as “non-fatal drowning with no morbidity”, meaning that they drowned but survived.

It gets a little harder to understand if someone was rescued who’d been under water and was brought to shore, but refused any kind of medical treatment and left the scene with salt water in their lungs. Let’s say that 5 hours later this person is laying on the couch watching TV and the salt water in their lungs causes fluid from the body to pass through the lung tissue and enter the lungs, filling them to the point that they couldn’t pass air and the person dies. Previously, this was called a “secondary drowning”, but now it’s a “non-fatal drowning with morbidity”.

It’s been a few years but even health care workers are still using the old terms. Eventually we’ll get them, but the care and treatment are the same. No matter the name, this possibility affects our local economy, public safety services, and collective psyche the same.

We work together as a network in our community to try and prevent this potential tragedy from happening to our locals and tourists alike for the good of the community and because it’s the right thing.

 

 

Texas Lifeguard Groups

About 8 years back I was contacted by the City Manager of the City of South Padre. A number of their citizens were concerned because they’d had a higher than normal drownings on their beaches. He was very interested in starting up a lifeguard service for their city. Several visits later, I wrote up an analysis of their beaches with the help of some colleagues in the United States Lifesaving Association which included recommendations for starting a professional lifeguard service.

For a time I made frequent presentations to every group imaginable. There was a bit of resistance from some who said they had less liability with signs than guards. Similar to what Galveston and much of the country has gone through at one time or another. Eventually, reason (and lots of politicking) prevailed, and they formed the first ever lifeguard service for their city under their fire department. A group of guards ended up going down with me, including Sean Migues and Kara Harrison, and we ran a United States Lifesaving Association ocean lifeguard academy.

They were off to a good start, but the problem is that most of their 27 or so miles of beaches fall under the jurisdiction of Cameron County, and that includes 3 areas with huge crowds. The city beaches are mostly in front of the beach front condos without much crowd density. So on a given weekend there were a handful of people in their area, but nearby at Isla Blanca Park there were several thousand people. The city lifeguards were running to the county beaches and making rescues and dealing with all kinds of emergencies. The bar had been raised and the county eventually stepped up and started their own program, again with our help. In fact, the guy they chose to be their Chief of Lifeguards has worked for both the Galveston Beach Patrol and the SPI Beach Patrol. The county program grew rapidly and they now have something like 40 seasonal lifeguards and three permanent staff members. Drownings have decreased dramatically.

That was great, but there was still a big gap in the central Texas Coast. There has been a guard presence of sorts for years there, but they haven’t had a consistent training program and used a pool certification for their guards instead of something appropriate for the surf environment, which leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of litigation.

That all changed recently. Some scandal hit their Parks Department a few months ago and a bunch of people were fired. Several new key staff positions were recently filled including a new Park Director and Lifeguard Chief, who was hired last Thursday. The guy they hired was the number two lifeguard for the City of SPI. He plans to use the Galveston Beach Patrol as a model.

Years ago we got a lot of help from different lifeguard agencies from all over the country to set up the system we have here in Galveston. Nice to have a chance to pass the favor on!

Veracruz Training Wrap-up

At 7:15 our little band stood in the lobby of the Hotel Louis rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and filing into the van of the “Proteccion Civil” (Mexican equivalent of Emergency Operations). By 7:45 we were in the auditorium provided to us as a classroom for the 60 students of the lifeguard academy.

It was the last full day in Veracruz. The culmination of 60 hours of training over a 6 day period. We were tired to the bone after all the teaching and mandatory extracurricular activities that were required of us by Mexican customs and the formalities required of a delegation from Veracruz’s sister city.

From the written test we went directly to the beach and the large group was quickly divided into a subset of 4. Smaller groups of around 15 participated in 4 separate scenarios on the beach. Two were simulated medical emergencies that were designed to happen on the shoreline and the other two were water emergencies, which were complicated by the 8 foot surf. By 11:30, thanks to the help from some additional volunteers, we’d run the scenarios and done a debriefing to talk about the good and bad responses to the simulated emergencies. After the daily mandatory group photo shots and autograph sessions protocol dictated, we ate a hasty meal that our host brought us. Then we and reunited with a couple of members of our group who were assigned the arduous task of grading the 60 exams and putting the scores in the course matrix alongside the swim, run, attendance, teamwork, and first aid/CPR course columns. To receive certification from the International Lifesaving Federation- Americas Region they had to pass all of the columns. 26 ended up passing and the others received an acknowledgement of participation in the course, and in some cases a certification in first aid and CPR.

The completion ceremony filled the municipal hall of Veracruz and there were high ranking officials present from the mayor to an admiral in the Navy to the heads of both tourism and civil protection for the state. The mayor is the son of the mayor that was there when Galveston and Veracruz formed their sister city relationship, and that relationship is clearly very important to the entire city. We were treated like royalty by everyone we came into contact with.

We actually got two glorious hours off to change, rest and prepare for the big celebration. At the celebration we distributed second had buoys, whistles, fins, lifeguard competition shirts, Galveston stickers and other things we brought to donate. Nothing goes to waste down there.

Hopefully the training will come in handy to the 14 groups from all over the state in the upcoming couple of weeks. Carnival starts today and they expect around 2 million people to visit the city alone in the next week. Semana Santa (Easter) follows shortly after and it just as big. They’ll definitely have their hands full.

Our crew returned Sunday exhausted but with renewed commitment. Our own challenges start shortly.

Veracruz Academy

22 years ago Vic Maceo and I joined a group from Galveston who went down to our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico in a delegation from Galveston. We went during Carnival, which in Veracruz is a really big deal. Veracruz is a huge tourist destination and during holidays it seems like all of Mexico City is there for the party. While there we noticed a lifeguard tower and went up to talk to the guard. That conversation sparked something that has been of great value for both Veracruz and Galveston.

At that time they had just started a lifeguard program in response to a rash of beachfront drownings. In its second year it hadn’t yet seen much success. Underfunding and understaffing issues were compounded by the fact that there is no lifeguarding program anywhere near Veracruz. There was no one to teach them how to be lifeguards or how to manage a lifeguarding program. Under the new management of a dynamic leader named Julian Flores Cabrera, who served as the Civil Protection Coordinator, they had made positive steps. Julian hired fishermen’s kids who had a good grasp of the water issues and could swim as opposed to the traditional method of putting the kids of local politicians in there. They also used information from a show that was popular at the time, “Guardianes de la Bahia”. That’s right- they used “Baywatch” to help train themselves to be lifeguards! Although they’d made a start, they still saw 27 to 30 drownings a year on their busy beaches.

We worked with Julian and within a couple of years we were co-teaching the classes and they were running regular lifeguard academies in our absence. We’ve now trained hundreds of guards including some military personnel that help out during the busy times. Once we even ran a surf rescue course for the Mexican equivalent of the Navy Seals. Most importantly the average drownings per year dropped from near 20 to about 4, which worked wonders for their ability to attract tourists and market the destination to a wider range of people.

Once they were self sustaining we stopped going down, although we stay in close contact with our sister agency. Apparently in recent years the program has deteriorated as a result of local politics and changing priorities. In Mexico it’s not uncommon after elections for a person from a new political party to takes office and fire everyone, making them reapply for their jobs. Last year there were almost 30 drownings which has caused a public outcry and the local politicians, public safety, and tourism officials are suddenly very concerned about the state of their lifeguarding program and the subsequent ability to market themselves as a beach destination. Once again the iron is hot.

So, as a result of a call from my old friend Julian, tomorrow morning I leave with a group of vacationing volunteer lifeguards using funding from Veracruz to run a week long lifeguard academy and meet with officials and community groups.

 

Surf Spot

People who don’t surf often have a misconception that there’s not very good surf in Galveston. And it’s true that most days if you drive down the seawall and look out to the gulf there’s not much in the way of waves. But if you know a few tricks and secret spots, there’s more than enough surf to keep even the most diehard surfer happy.

This is a great time of year for surfers. Once the fronts start rolling in periodically in the fall and the spring there’s a pattern to it. We get a strong on shore wind (from the water to the land) which brings in some choppy surf. It’s usually short period waves that may have some size but aren’t usually formed well for surfers. But it’s enough to keep you busy if you’re desperate. Then the front hits with an offshore wind. If the wind comes in soft and blows either directly offshore or from the north east it will clean up the surf. Once its good and lined up we’ll get some nice, clean, surfable swell. This past weekend had a great example that started with shortboardable waves and, as it got smaller, still was great for long boards and stand up paddleboards.

You may have noticed a bunch of short boarders lately in the area west of 61st street. Because the new sand has been placed there recently it hasn’t leveled all the way out yet. There’s a drop off where the water goes from deep to shallow maybe 20 yards from shore. This bottom topography causes the waves to break hard, which is good for short boards because it has some power to it. This won’t last but lots of surfers have been out there taking advantage of something that’s not normal for the upper Texas coast. The slope of the beach is directly related to the grain size of the sand. We have small grain size here which means the beach will naturally end up having a gradual slope and the sandbars in the area west of 61st will migrate out farther like they are elsewhere. But while it lasts the “beach break” is keeping many happy.

Another spot that is pretty interesting is the area on the east end of the island, in the ship channel. Typically this doesn’t have ridable waves, but when the conditions are just right it can be world class, with freight train tubes 100 yards long. Its ridable maybe a couple times a year for those that are there at exactly the right time, but only gets really good once every couple of years. Conditions have to be extremely rough on the beachfront- usually white water to the horizon with a west to east current. Huge waves refract around the south jetty and end up hitting the “beach” at an angle. Its often only good for a couple of hours, so only the most dialed in birds get the worm. That’s why “surfers isle” is so elusive and has reached mythic proportions in the surf community.

Praker

Lifeguarding in the ’80’s was a different thing.

Today, with a staff of almost 130, a strict policy and procedure manual, and a very long, intense, and comprehensive training course, we run one of the most professional beach guarding organizations in the country. The guards that make it through are reliable, committed, and professional. Of course it’s fun, but there’s not a lot of monkey business.

Back in the “pre-liability” 80’s it was a different story. We worked hard, but there were only around 20 or so lifeguards in, say 1985. We were a family that worked and played together. Our “headquarters” was a trailer parked on Stewart Beach and our Dispatcher/Office Manager was there every day, all day. Unlike today, where our staff is roughly 50% women, it was a very male dominated culture. There were a few very exceptional women that worked for the Beach Patrol and we respected them because they more than held their own. With such a small staff and only two peace officers that helped with security on the weekends (thank you Donny and Albie!) the lifeguards dealt with wild, drunken Texas crowds often. I remember women lifeguards jumping in with the men to break up large fights often.

None of the women (or men) were tougher than Diana Praker, who we knew simply as “Praker”. Praker was a very good triathlete who trained constantly with a couple of other Beach Patrol athletes. She partied as hard as she worked.

After work we used to go to an outdoor blues bar called the Patio Bar that was attached to a waterslide on Stewart Beach. It was a biker bar and very few bikers were of the modern urban fashionista variety. But the guards fit in and they served a drink called that “lifeguard special” for an obscenely cheap price for the guards, so we were regulars.

On one Saturday after an especially grueling day on the beach, a bunch of lifeguards, friends, G-town locals, and bikers were there. Praker walked in with her friend Brit. Brit was gorgeous and instantly got the attention of the crowd. They sat with the group and joined in whatever the smack talk was of the moment.

Praker got up to get a round for everyone and a drunk biker sat down next to Brit and started saying all kinds of obscene things to her. We all watched, amused at the diversion, until he started pawing at her. Before any of us could react to help Brit, Praker was there with a serious right cross. Drunky Biker Guy went down, knocked out cold.

His friends came up and I personally think my life flashed before my eyes. But the main guy that approached suddenly started laughing and shaking Praker’s hand. As we got some oxygen to revive Drunky, the bikers bought us a round and joined us at the table.

I vaguely remember Praker and Drunky Biker Guy toasting to Brit somewhere in there as the evening wore on.

 

 

Dolphin Story

I met a guy the other day who had an interesting story about a dolphin.

He grew up as a surfer/swimmer/lifeguard in Southern California. Life happened- he blinked and he found himself married and working 70 hours a week as a very successful stockbroker in LA. Big parties, big money, drugs, fake friends, the entire package.

One day he woke up so sad and sick that he realized this was not how he wanted to live, not how he wanted to be. He gave up the job, which quickly led to the loss of the money and lifestyle and, subsequently, the wife.

He drifted. At one point he was a river guide in Wyoming who got into riding this big river wave. He was depressed though and kept doing self destructive things to fill the void where his former life and wife had been. He still partied too much, still used some, and took extreme physical risks.

He ended up in Kona, Hawaii. The lifeless black lava rock seemed like a physical manifestation of his broken soul. He wound up in a state park. An older hippy woman approached him and said, “You’re here to be healed by the dolphins?'”. He replied that he wasn’t sick. She said, “Sure you are. Your heart.” She pointed to his chest briefly and walked off saying, “Go swim.”

He swam out about 200 yards from shore. He said he was in such a dark place that he considered swimming out so far that he couldn’t get back. Suddenly, a huge shape moved next to him in the water. He jolted straight up and down thinking it was a shark. Two dolphins circled him and one came right up to him looking him in the eye. It was vertical in the water. He felt the deep bass feeling of being blasted by its sonar. He froze. Then the big dolphin dropped in the water and blasted him again in the chest. The other did the same from the back.

Something happened in the water. When he returned to shore he still felt sad, but it was manageable. He later found out that people come from all over to swim with the bottlenose dolphins, who are very tame, and claim they are healers. He said he’s never gotten to that dark place since, and when he is down it is a normal kind of sadness.

He told me the story in a very matter of fact way. Nothing else we talked about had spiritual overtones. The rest of our conversation was about surfing, lifesaving, etc.

He has returned to his roots and has worked as an ocean guard on the Big Island for the past 10 years. He seems really content. He says he’s never been as happy as now. He swims regularly with the dolphins at the park but hasn’t felt the deep sonar blast him since that one day that they saved him and altered the course of his life.