Spring Break!

Tomorrow, Saturday March 7 it all starts. We have lifeguard tryouts at 7am and will begin training the ones who pass immediately afterwards. Returning guards will do their swim test, drug screen, and rehire paperwork and many will head to the towers to start their first day of guarding of the season. And, of course, Spring Break really kicks off this weekend.

This marks the turning of the season for many of us who work and live on the beach. Its really nice when everyone comes back and starts enjoying themselves on the beach. Its great that we’ve completed all of our winter tasks and my staff can get back to the part of the job they love, which is protecting people who come to the beach from accidents. Its great to see the parks open, smell grilled meat, help lost children find their parents, help people who are injured, serve as island tourist ambassadors, and train in or enjoy the ocean without being encased in a big rubber suit. But its hard to not feel nostalgic about empty winter beaches shared with a few die-hard people who love the beach as much as we do.

Having several hundred thousand people about to hit the water and sand over the next couple of weeks means that there are many opportunities for them to get in trouble. This is a great time for reminders of how to avoid bad things happening.

Learn to Swim- it’s the only sport that will save your life!

Swim Near a Lifeguard- You’ll have an extra layer of safety and there is a trained professional near if you get in trouble.

Stay Away from Rocks- Any structure causes strong, dangerous rip currents.

Swim with a Buddy- There will be someone to raise the alarm if you get into trouble.

Check with the Lifeguards- They’re there for you! And they can give you information about local hazards.

Use Sunscreen and Drink Water- Avoid dehydration and overexposure which increase your risk of something bad happening.

Obey Posted Signs and Flags- Beach Patrol maintains over 300 safety signs along all 33 miles of beach. Many dangers are marked, and the signs let you know where the dangers are.

Learn Rip Current Safety- Rip currents are responsible for 80% of rescues, and likely the same for fatal and non-fatal drownings. If caught in a rip, relax and float and you’ll probably end up on shore without doing anything. Yell for help if possible and if you’re a good swimmer try swimming parallel to shore towards breaking waves, then back in.

Enter Water Feet First- The open water can hide dangers beneath the surface that you can’t see and that can cause a spinal injury if you’re careless

Wear a Life Jacket- especially if you’re a non-swimmer or child when in or around the water.

Don’t Swim at the Ends of the Island- There are dangerous tidal currents at the ship channel and San Luis Pass.

And most importantly, have fun!

 

 

Photo by: Billy Hill

Flag Conditions

We are only a week away from lifeguard tryouts and we’re hoping for a big turnout on Saturday the 7th of march. Info is on our website. We’re also right on beach season, so were pushing out public safety information to remind people to be safe. One area that’s important is our Flag Warning System.

The Flag Warning System is used to advise beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower flies the appropriate flags for the day. They also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our Homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background info on them:

Green: Conditions are calm. Swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that caution should be used when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. Its important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should be kept along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates a potential problem with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags will be used in combination with other flags. Every guard trains before every shift so we use ourselves as the Guinea Pigs. If we get several stings while swimming the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates there is an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health Districts Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain areas so these flags, when flown, may be just in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Organizational Management Philosophy

I hope you are either avoiding the Mardi Gras festivities or diving into the fray, depending on your preference. For me, Mardi Gras marks the beginning of the tourist season and is the point where we switch from preparations to going into a more operational mode. Of course, this season has been so warm and there have been so many people on the beach that it doesn’t really feel like we had an “off season”.

I think all our full-time staff is looking forward to the seasonal lifeguards coming back and for the organization to transition to beach mode instead of planning mode. Me too, but I’ve been so impressed with how our year-round staff has handled themselves all winter. Especially how the 4 new people that were promoted to Supervisor have been integrated into the system. We had a very minor dispute between a few of them recently and it seemed like a good time to clear the air before we go into the season and our staff size grows with all the seasonal guards.

When we met, we also had the opportunity to discuss our organizational philosophy of communication and decision making. Sometimes it’s good to review this kind of thing to make sure everyone is bought in to the process. Being from a specific generation and from a public safety background, I have traditionally followed a top down management style, where the boss makes the calls always and directives are pushed down from the top. But this doesn’t always work so well with the younger work force who likes to be part of the process. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years from the Texas Police Chief leadership courses, Park Board directed leadership training, my staff, and listening to how other organizations have altered their management style. To a certain extent I’ve changed a bit in how I see effective leadership working.

Being an emergency response group, we always default to a strict chain of command system where it’s very clear who tells who what to do during crisis. This is essential in responding to emergencies because of its consistency and practicality. But when it comes to other types of tasks it seems to work better for us to take a different approach. If we’re figuring out what types of training would work best, working on a maintenance task, or deciding how best to keep guards’ morale up, we move to a non-hierarchical style. The working group may pick their leader/facilitator and the choice may not be made based on seniority or rank. The two systems are not mutually exclusive and through dialogue and practice we’re getting better at moving between the two models.

One example is that we let a working group decide what training they feel they need and let them choose who teaches the modules. After much discussion and debate they’re rotating through topics as diverse as oxygen delivery methods to kite board rescue.  They chose relevant topics and are engaged and bought in to the process.

Full Time Staff Competition

High stepping into the frigid water we all chose different strategies. Some circled wide, choosing to run a little farther up the beach to account for a moderate lateral current. Others went straight in. Muffled sounds of discomfort were heard over the breaking surf as they hit the first trough and started a series of “dolphin dives”, using their feet to push off the bottom repeatedly. A wet suit is only warm after the cold water gets in and your body warms it up, so the first 5 minutes can be awful.

Once we got to chest deep everyone started swimming. As the old man in the group, I need more warmup time, so entered the water last. Hoping that experience and training would help me in lieu of raw physical ability, I ignored the panicky feeling that first immersion always brings, and focused on a long regular swim stroke and good sighting of the buoys so as not to lose too much time by not swimming in straight line.

As we rounded the first buoy and set our sights in the second, things got complicated because there was just enough fog to prevent seeing it at first. So, we had to use reference points to get a general sense of direction and hoped for the best. Andy Moffett shot ahead and maintained the whole race, and we all used him as a reference point. Or guinea pig.

Coming off the first lap we were warmed up and the water conditions were no longer an issue. I came out after Andy and looked back. Micah Fowler was close, then Jeff Mullin and Joey Walker neck and neck. A little behind them was Dain Buck, then Kevin Knight, Micah Fowler, and Michael Lucero. From there another run, a lap using rescue boards, run, swim, another rescue board lap, and a double run.

The real race was between Jeff and Joey, who went back and forth the entire time. Both are big cross fit athletes, so it was an aerobic battle. Dain took a little while getting going, but he’s a real experienced water guy whose been with us for years. Once he found his rhythm, he used wave and current knowledge to blast by. He almost caught me at the end by catching a great wave all the way on the outside.

We use competition quite a bit to maintain the high level of fitness required of ocean guards and have periodic competitions to motivate the crew. This was a team event between full time staff members. All winter we’ve done once a week training of this exact course to maintain fitness, keep everyone continually adapted to cold, and make sure everyone is intimately familiar to which wetsuit and equipment to use for a variety of conditions. This was the final test between teams and who gets bragging rights. But from here we’ll move on to requalification times for all the staff in the pool, a night swim, daily workouts, and Sunday races.

Rude Dog

The motorcycle came careening across the sand of the packed beach. It almost fell, swerved barely missing a couple of small children playing in the sand, then overcompensated and barely missed an umbrella with a family under it.

Rudy Betancourt, AKA “Rude Dog”, stepped up to the guy on the bike, who looked more than a little tipsy. I couldn’t make out the exact words, but Rudy started as always with a calm low voice. The conversation escalated quickly with the biker yelling some obscenities and then doing something incredibly stupid. He, first of all, tried to throw a punch at Rudy, which was basically a death wish. And to add insult to injury, he tried to do it while straddling a 1,500-pound Harley. His day went downhill from there. Rudy easily ducked the punch and countered with a right cross that put the guy down hard. We ran to lift the bike off the unconscious guy and I distinctly remember a sizzling sound and the smell of burning flesh. I was 17 so the event burned into my memory much more permanently than the burn on the guys leg.

A couple of years later I was promoted to lifeguard supervisor and was permanently assigned to ride with Rudy on the weekends. We rode together for 10 years and became friends for life. In those days the beach was the Wild-Wild-West, with Apffel Park and a couple of spots on the west end in a state of constant party including fights, water emergencies, crazy injuries, and all kinds of insanity. In retrospect I now realize that we had way too few resources for the amount of people visiting our beaches. We only had tower guards at half of the groins on the seawall, and very little security at the beach parks. The Beach Patrol did the best it could but fewer guards means more people getting into trouble. This meant tons of rescues made from the vehicles instead of swimmers moved from danger by tower guards. It also meant that we broke up lots of fights without training or equipment and responded to way more medical emergencies than you can imagine. To my eyes now, as an administrator and Chief this means liability for the city, danger for employees, and a drowning rate sometimes exceeding 25 a year that could drastically reduce tourism attendance and dollars. But as a 20-year-old college kid who came down for the weekends and summer to make money, do some good, and have fun it was awesome. And I couldn’t have asked for a better trainer and guide than Rudy Betancourt.

Through all the rescues, fights, conflict, and parties he was cool as ice. He moved slow until he didn’t. And he passed on more beach wisdom to me and many others than any of us realized.

Now Rudy owns several businesses in Galveston and spends half his time in Panama. Buckle up, catch him at the Black Pearl or the Press Box, and get him to tell you some old lifeguarding stories.

Warmer Conditions

Comparing this winter to last, we’ve had much warmer conditions so far. It looks like we’re already to our early Spring pattern of repeated fronts coming through and we haven’t even had anything close to a freeze yet. The beach water barely dipped into the upper 50’s once and has mostly sat in the lower 60’s for a while. On sunny days we’ve actually had a good number of people on the beaches and there have even been a few brave/foolhardy/northern/European people getting in the water.

All this put together has meant that our daily patrol vehicle that covers all 33 miles of beachfront this time of year has had steady work moving people from rocks and out of dangerous areas, keeping vehicles out of prohibited areas, and serving as tourist ambassadors to the surprising amount of tourists that have been on the beach. The warmer conditions have also meant more people on the water in boats and we, along with our partners in the Galveston Marine Response, have responded to quite a few boating emergencies.

One thing that is a cool byproduct of these frontal systems is that we’ve had some pretty epic surf days right after the front passes. The energy from the pre-front on shore winds still remains for a bit but the offshore winds clean the waves up, making them long and clean and great for surfing. The Pleasure Pier and the 91st street fishing pier were the spots that caught the swell the best, but I had a couple of early morning and late afternoon sessions out on the west end that were pretty memorable. Being winter, these days were easy on my staff, since you needed a wetsuit to be in the water and most surfers that own wetsuits are fairly experienced and rarely need any help from us. In fact, surfers make scores of rescues each year since they thrive in the areas near rip currents and piers where regular swimmers typically have problems. The great thing for my staff, who all surf, is that both the really good recent days happened on the weekends. Aside from our patrol, the staff is mostly doing maintenance on towers during the normal work week, so a bunch of them got to take a day trip to Matagorda where it breaks harder. They all have good shots of themselves deep in the tube to rub in to those who didn’t make it.

I was renewing my police chief certification all week in Huntsville. Sitting for 9 hours straight several days in a row is not my favorite, but Texas has great training for this type of thing. I spent all week on topics that will help us all like personality testing as a tool for public safety, building a wellness program for your agency, creating a positive and contemporary culture in an organization, public communication use and agency public relations, legislative updates, use of force best practices, community and law enforcement mental health, and leadership lessons. All good things to bring home.

Join the Family!

Even though it’s still winter we’ve got just over a month before Spring Break is here. The beach parks kick off on March 8th, but the beaches will be getting busy before that. Our full-time staff, between patrolling, answering emergency calls, and putting the finishing touches on our lifeguard towers, are already starting to do a thousand little things to be ready when the beach pops. We’re prepping for our various programs that will get going in the spring including lifeguarding, Wave Watcher, supervisor and dispatcher academies, and Survivor Support Network.

As always we are hoping for a big turnout to the four lifeguard academies we’ll have this year. It’s been difficult filling the positions we have and covering the beachfront the past three years, even though it’s an amazing job that pays really well. Our two main academies are over Spring Break and the two weeks leading up to Memorial Weekend. Please help us by spreading the word and encouraging anyone you know that is interested to start swimming to prepare, and then to try out to beach a beach guard. The main obstacle to getting a job with us is making that minimum swim time. Our website has tons of info on it and even has sample swim workouts and training tips.

Another area that we’d love to have a big turnout for is our Wave Watcher Program. Wave Watchers go through a 20-hour free course that includes victim detection and beach safety information, CPR and Tourist Ambassador Certification, and information about working with local first responder organizations. After the training our Wave Watchers keep a trained eye out on the beach as they go through their normal life activities. Some are motivated to patrol set schedules and areas or help with lost children at the beach parks. Others just let us know if they see anything developing while they’re driving, walking, fishing, biking etc. This has become an integral part of our program as they are often out in areas or during times of the day that we’re not present. Several Wave Watchers are also members of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and are trained to come to the aid of families in crisis when their loved ones are missing in the water. The Wave Watcher Academy will take place in April and we’re taking applicants now.

The other big program we have is our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp for kids 10-15 years of age which starts in early June. This program teaches lifeguard and leadership skills while we workout and do all kinds of fun activities and field trips. It’s very economical and we have scholarships available. Most importantly for us, these JGs are the lifeguards and leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever you are and whatever you do there is a way for you or someone you know to join our family. Get on our website or give us a call to find out more information.

We need you and Galveston needs you!

Ship Channel Accident

This week we spend quite a bit of time on the water in the ship channel area helping the Coast Guard look for two people that were missing after a tragic boating. These types of searches often start out simply but end up going into all types of different worlds. When they happen, I’m always grateful for the privilege of having friends and colleagues in various parts of the broader safety net. One of the really nice things about being in a job like this for a long time is you get to develop relationships with some pretty evolved people.

Late in the afternoon I got a call from Louis Trouchesset with the Marine Division of the Galveston Sheriff Office, who is a key member of the Galveston Marine Response Team. He told me about the accident and said that they were not able to launch a boat because of the dense fog. With an hour of daylight left, my staff decided they could launch a jet ski and hug the rocks on the east side of the south jetty to see if they could locate one of the four people that were missing. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything. Coast Guard found two and then searched throughout the night with their larger boat, using radar and GPS to navigate. The Galveston Police Department was able to get out there as well for much of the night. The next morning, we provided a lifeguard to Louis in the county boat and searched throughout the day alongside them using jet skis.

Louis will hate that I write this about him because he’s not the kind of guy that ever seeks out attention. But he is one of the more impressive people I’ve had the privilege of working with. He is incredibly knowledgeable about marine law enforcement and basically everything else to do with boats or ocean. In addition, he’s really a smart guy and sees both the larger picture and things other people miss, especially around the water. Exposure to him and the way he works is invaluable training for my staff.

Louis and I have worked with another extraordinary person in the Coast Guard on a number of different things. Caren Damon is an example of the quality that rises to the top in a system like that. She’s amazing with families in crisis among lots of other things. When she asked for a space to brief and provide counseling to the victims’ families, I immediate called David Mitchel with the Jesse Tree.

David is a highly creative social services guru who knows everything and everyone. He has attracted a group of volunteers for our Survivor Support Network program who are compassionate, energetic, dedicated and fun, just like him. They arranged for a room at Moody Methodist within a couple of hours.

All these friends and organizations going to such lengths for others, along with my unbelievable staff who enthusiastically spent hours in the cold and wet, are a source of constant inspiration.

Fisherman Rescue

Sometimes rescues are not as dramatic as they are interesting.

A couple of days before Christmas we received a direct call from a local resident who was worried about his son right as the sun was setting. He called our main number which automatically rolls over to our “on call” phone when no one is in the office. His son, who was in his late teens, had been out duck hunting on the north side of the San Luis Pass since early in the day. He waded out to an island that was about a quarter mile from shore, but the tide had filled in and the gut he’d walked across was now overhead with a strong current running through it.

Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Supervisor Josh Bailey headed out to The Pass. They were finally able to locate the vehicle the victim had driven in after it was all the way dark. They were able to communicate with him by phone and he used a combination of a flashlight and firing his shotgun to help them find him.

After careful consideration they decided to have Josh go for the guy and Austin to stay on shore in case they needed to call for more help. Josh donned his wetsuit and a headlight, grabbed a waterproof radio, and headed out using a combination of wading and paddling a rescue board.

When Josh got to the island, he found the fisherman in good spirits. He was painted up in camouflage paint and wore a camo outfit with waders. He had a backpack loaded with supplies, a shotgun, and a string of duck decoys. He said he was thinking about just eating some food he had brought and sleeping until the next low tide, but was afraid that the tide would cover the island when it filled all the way in. He was worried that he couldn’t make it across the gut, where the tidal flow had carved out an area that was well overhead. As Josh paddled him in with all the little decoys following them like a mama duck, he was joking around but was happy to be rescued by a “rescue swimmer”.

We’ve rescued many people, and even a cow, out there when the conditions and the sandbars change rapidly. Something that seems so simple, like wading out to a shallow sandbar, can turn deadly quickly.

I don’t know the guy that was rescued. But I know some things about him just by reading the rescue report. For such a young guy he’s very smart and/or experienced. He knew his waders could fill and drown him, as has happened to countless people fishing over the years. He was also really smart to be so prepared with a flashlight, food, and a charged cell phone.

Taking some simple precautions, thinking out a course of action carefully when the situation changed, and not being too proud to call for help when needed was the difference between a potential tragedy and an interesting story.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Winter goes quickly in Galveston. Before you know it, the beaches will be filling up again and we’ll start the cycle all over again.

We all make resolutions for the new year. We change our diet, commit to exercising more often, promise ourselves we’ll be more patient with difficult people or work environments, and basically try to will ourselves into being better people. And changing our path is a real, although difficult, possibility. The Dali Lama said something to the effect of right intention leads to right actions, which if practiced consistently leads to right being. You can, over time change your essence for the better. You can become a better person through discipline and consciously changing your actions.

We on the Beach Patrol also have annual resolutions and goals that we choose and focus on for the year. Just like you and I and most people, we try to keep doing the good things we do consistently and pick areas we think we should improve on and make them our focus. Many of these goals are embodied in our annual “business plan”, which all the Park Board departments do, and our board of directors approves/adopts for the coming year.

For us it usually boils down to setting goals that will ultimately prevent accidents. Many of them have to do with targeting areas that we can improve either our performance or focusing on segments of the population for public education.

One area we always want to improve on is how much we’re able to impact the youth. Our belief is that when young people know the basics of beach safety, they not only avoid accidents themselves, but they can also educate their peers, younger siblings, and even their parents. The schools have for many years been very supportive of our annual School Water Safety Outreach Program. A big part of this is we go out to the schools in the Spring and give water safety presentations to as many kids in the schools as we can. We focus on Galveston County, but have in recent years extended our net further. Our goal this year is to hit over 20,000 children. If these kids know how to avoid rip currents and other beach hazards they can spread that knowledge. We can create a sort of “herd immunity”, in which kids who are “inoculated” with information on how to be safe reduce the chances of drowning of not only themselves, but other kids and family members they’re with. We do the same for groups that show up on the beach.

Of course, we have many other goals related to administration, maintenance, communication, and productivity. But ultimately it all comes back to preventing aquatic accidents. And when you talk of prevention the key is to provide the tools and information for people to be able to take care of themselves and then be there ready to help with additional layers of protection and response when all else fails.