Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

Late in the day on Sunday, September 29th two young women entered the water underneath the Pleasure Pier. It was a very rough day with red flag warnings and rip current advisories, and the beach was crowded with thousands of swimmers in the water. This late in the year we didn’t have enough guards to staff tower 25.

The two women stepped into a deep area caused by the interaction of the current and posts and were swept out by a strong rip current. They flailed in the water panicking. One was able to grab a barnacle encrusted post in a bear hug and keep herself above water. The other tried to make it to the next post and repeatedly tried to climb up, ripping the skin off her fingertips and getting sliced by the barnacles. She started to go under and began to “climb the ladder”, meaning she was actively drowning and ineffectively throwing her arms out in front of her to catch one more breath.

Supervisors Michael Lucero and Mary Stewart were both at tower 24 checking with the lifeguard, Matthew Sicilio, when they saw a familiar figure in a blue shirt waving them over. Carlos Guerra, one of our most active volunteer Wave Watchers was patrolling the area and spotted the two women in trouble. On the way the police dispatcher said they’d received multiple 911 calls and were sending the Galveston Marine Response group (fire, police, and EMS). They arrived to find a large crowd yelling and pointing but no one could actually see either of the two women.

Lucero grabbed his rescue fins and tube and ran under the pier as Stewart assumed “Incident Command”. She directed Lifeguard Matthew Sicilio to run from his tower at 24 and help Lucero. Lucero then “dolphin dove” to the east side and then used the same rip current that sucked the women out. But for him it was a way to get quickly away from shore. He looked back to see Carlos using Beach Patrol signals to direct him to the victims, who were under the pier and hard to spot. He found the first one hanging on the post and saw the second one trying ineffectively to latch on to the next post out. He asked the first woman if she could hang on a little longer. When she said she could and told him where her friend was, he swam farther out and got to the second woman just as she submerged for the final time.

Matthew Sicilio and long-time surfer Erich Schlegel swam out to help. Matthew ended up taking the second victim in and Erich helped make contact and then helped Lucero bring the first victim to shore. They turned the two women over the fire and EMS on shore as the police provided crowd control. One was transported to the Emergency room in stable condition.

This was really close. Many threads of our larger safety net had to come together to save these two women.

This Coming Year

We just finished the budget process for the Beach Patrol’s next year and I gave a short presentation on Beach Patrol in general, the coming year, and where we’re headed to our Board of Directors. I though selected parts of this might be of interest. I think it helps get the point across that we are not just a lifeguard service but an overall safety net with many different pieces all working together.

The mission of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is to provide professional lifeguard service to the City of Galveston’s beaches through the direct prevention of and response to aquatic accidents and through public education. We felt public education was a big enough part of preventing drowning deaths that it should be in the defining sentence about the service.

Annually we average 170,000 Preventions (moving people away from danger), 150 Rescues, 1,800 Enforcements, and 1,800 Medical Responses. The medical and enforcement responses are mostly cases of being able to filter calls for the police, EMS, and fire departments. If we treat minor medical emergencies or do things like settle disputes or enforce ordinances those are calls that the other departments don’t have to waste time and energy responding to. Its helpful that we have a very small in-house police department.

We routinely patrol 33 Miles of Beach but provide emergency response to over 70 Miles of Coastline all year. During 7 months of the year we proactively guard 9 miles of beach out of 32 lifeguard towers. In the summer we provide daily west end patrols and weekend patrols at the San Luis Pass. Just in the past 5 years we’ve taken on a San Luis Pass patrol on summer weekends, 7 day a week summer patrol of the west end, and guarding the new “Babe’s Beach” west of 61st.

We are involved in a multitude of community programs including the Junior Lifeguard Program, Water Safety School Outreach (26,000 kids this year), Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, Basic Water Rescue instruction for public safety and surf camp instructors, and the Galveston Marine Response Group. We are also enhancing operations with a couple of new enclosed fiberglass towers with coastal marine life wraps on them next year. All of this will be accomplished next year with a budget of only 3.1 million, 117 seasonal employees, and 14 fulltime employees who have lifeguard training plus the addition of Swiftwater Rescue, National Incident Management System certification, are Personal Rescue Water Craft Operators, Certified Tourist Ambassadors, EMTs, Red Cross/USLA Instructors, some are Peace Officers, and more.

This coming year we are focusing on a patient transport capable vehicle for the San Luis Pass to help get people off the sand to EMS units, growing our year round staff’s SCUBA capabilities and getting our new tower sponsorship program off the ground.

We also are focused on the establishment of sustainable levels of service within new budgetary constraints so we can make recommendations on what the minimum necessary are to prevent drowning rates from increasing. As we move into a future with increasing beach use, we need to address the need for growth with future beach nourishment projects, funding challenges, a marked increase during the shoulder season of fall and spring and even winter, increase in use of west end beaches, and creative funding solutions to help us target higher risk drowning populations.

Jellyfish

Last week one morning I was training. I was alternating racing rescue board legs, running, and swim legs. This time of year, working out is just maintaining skills and staying in decent shape for winter lifeguarding, so I was coasting along on my second swim thinking about something else, when I felt something I haven’t dealt with for a while. I felt little strings across my chest, down my belly, and down my legs. I wasn’t expecting it since we’ve had very few all summer. It was probably a Japanese Jellyfish, or “Sea Nettle”. The bad part is you feel the tentacles and there’s a gap before the pain starts. And you don’t know how bad it will get. This one was moderate but managed to find its way inside my suit, so maybe worse than moderate in select areas!

Jellyfish and man-o-war are more common in late summer although we typically have both year-round. If they are numerous, we fly a purple flag in addition to the red, yellow, or green condition flags on the back of the towers, at strategic locations on the seawall, and at the entrances to the beach parks. There are also flags at Jamaica Beach, in front of some hotels, and at a couple of sites on the Bolivar Peninsula. We post the daily flag colors on our website and you can sign up to get e-mail and text notifications to help you plan your beach day.

The current treatment for jellyfish in our part of the planet that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is saline. If you don’t have saline the next best thing is actual seawater. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the saline, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then rinse the area completely to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) that have not yet fired are gone. This will keep the sting from getting worse. A sting from a man-o-war or jellyfish can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the surface of the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get.

Another thing to remember about the jellyfish is that they, and their cousins the man-o-war, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The good thing is that overall, we’ve had a pattern of very few stinging critters for a couple of years, so you probably won’t have my bad luck!

Open Water Swimming

As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.

This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of saltwater will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave, so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally, a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little, you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

Labor Day

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

We’ve had a number of close calls in recent weeks. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are normally very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point, and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water, so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, for advice before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear life jackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. See you on the beach!

Lost Friends

As we move through this life there are some people who really make a difference. People we feel privileged to walk in tandem with, at least for a time. The hard thing for me is the feeling of loss when that time ends. There are two people that I really respect and appreciate that I will not have the privilege to work along side of anymore.

Chief Mike Wisko, who has been with the Galveston Fire Department has announced his retirement this week. In the early ‘80’s Mike worked with the Beach Patrol. I think he was about 15 at the time, and as lifeguards do, he caught a little teasing because he was the son of the fire chief, Willy Wisko. So, Mike got the name “Wee Willy Wisko”. But he took it in stride and was a huge help as he did first aids on Stewart Beach.

Mike worked his way up the ranks in the Fire Department and was and is a true “Firefighter’s Firefighter”. He has been an incredible visionary and team builder. Always ready to combine resources, provide support, and figure out ways to better serve the city and citizens. After hurricane Ike then mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to figure out how to better respond to natural disasters. Mike was a very key component to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response. As busy as he was with his other duties, he always made it a point to attend our meetings himself to make sure this important collaboration got off on the right track and stayed on course. On top of all he has done here, he also is a very key player in our state’s response team, and somehow still manages to serve as the president of the state fire association. I will always appreciate the time working with him and deeply appreciate all he did to make sure the Fire Department and Beach Patrol worked seamlessly together and provided mutual support. But at least Mike is still around and accessible.

The big loss for me this week was hearing that Melvin Williams passed away. Melvin did three full terms with the Park Board and was such a huge support to the Beach Patrol during his time. He was always there to listen, bounce ideas off of, and was such a strong advocate while remaining so tactful. He never burned bridges or let things get emotional while providing guidance through some pretty trying times. He was a quiet warrior who always treated everyone with so much respect. I literally begged him to do one more stint with the Park Board the last time he came on board. Literally. But when he saw value and true need he seems to have always managed to find the time and energy, whether or not he got any recognition for it. The light shines a little dimmer without Melvin being here, and we will miss him. But I feel so fortunate to have had the privilege to call him both mentor and friend.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family

At our National Lifeguarding Championships in Virginia Beach I was suddenly hit with a moment of clarity that was close to a revelation.

Just like is often the case here in Galveston, there were so many things going on all at once. We had athletes from the Junior Guard program, U19, open, and age group competing. In addition to these incredibly talented athletes from 10 to 70+ years of age, we had a sponsor appreciation party, numerous events for the athletes, a celebration of life/ paddle out ceremony for several lifeguard chiefs who have recently passed away, and we had the privilege of giving out an award to a group of brave US Marines who saved a group of kids from drowning.

I was thinking about all of this, and it suddenly hit me what a comprehensive web we all collectively weave, both in Galveston, nationally, and internationally. Locally, we are so much more than a collection of beach lifeguards, and lifeguard support teams. We are a large, comprehensive safety net. And we are a family. The Galveston Beach Patrol Family. That family includes guards, Junior Guards and their parents, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, partner public safety groups, Park Board and City of Galveston departments, the media, the larger Galveston community and many more.

Many enter as very young children in the Junior Guard Program. They learn about the ocean, build an ocean and rescue skill set, and learn how to use it to help others. They may continue as guards, volunteers, athletes, coaches, sponsors, administrators, and more. Hundreds devote uncountable hours and energy to prevent accidents, save lives, educate the public, acknowledge service and heroism inside and outside of the family with our cousin groups, mentor newer and younger members, and to support each other in so many ways. This is way beyond what would or could be done out of a feeling of obligation or devotion to duty. This must be love.

We love the over 7 million people we protect annually. We love the environment we are so privileged to work in. And like a family, no matter how much we may disagree or argue or butt heads, we love each other. We understand the incredibly difficult role we all have in trying to keep people safe in an environment that is foreign to them, but that we thrive in. We know how hard you must work your entire life to maintain the conditioning and skills that allow you to be the rescuer and not the victim. We know how important even the briefest interaction with a tourist or local can be. And we know how much what you do to get people information on how to be safe before they ever get wet matters.

Thank you to each of you that play a part in the shared mission, and for choosing to be in The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family.

Taekwondo

Front kick-punch-punch, roundhouse-punch-punch, punch-punch-hook, back leg high roundhouse, punch-punch-hook-uppercut, back leg roundhouse. Raspy breath … sweat in my eye blurs vision…. “Four!”, Rick yells. Oh man I have so many more of these… focus… focus…. Try to control breathing…. “Retract those kicks!”, yells Grand Master Robles from the other side of the room. I grunt what I hope sounds like an acknowledgement. The voice in my head says, “Remember the order of the combination… chamber the kicks… rotate your body with the punches…. don’t let your movements fall apart because your lungs burn, you feel dizzy and are losing focus. “Five- keep it up”! Rick yells.

Living near the ocean, its hard not to notice the interconnectedness of the environment. Rain and calm conditions cause algae blooms, which in turn can reduce oxygen levels in the water and causes fish kill. Volunteers come out for Clean Galveston and clean the beaches and beach goers notice the difference. Wind leads to current and waves which in turn cause long shore and rip currents. A story about blue water doubles our weekend visitor count. A story about bacteria caused by rain runoff has the opposite effect. Light wind and hot weather increase umbrella rental revenue. Excessive heat leads to not only potential medical emergencies, but to crowd problems. Economic and other types of community support plus lots of proactive work by lifeguards can reduce drowning rates. Or the reverse.

For people who spend years on the beach observing connections between the environment, economy, and social trends, noticing connections becomes almost second nature. If people are observant, age can do the same. Glad it’s good for something!

A few years ago, I followed my daughter’s lead and joined a Taekwondo class. Then I started kickbox training in addition to that with Grand Master Ismael Robles and his best friend, and Galveston Ex Police Chief, Rick Boyle. My intent was to do something to hang out more with my daughter, get some cross training in for lifeguard sport, and to get better at self defense for my job. What I gained in addition to all of that was surprising.

Last weekend I tested for black belt. The test involved all the forms and combinations from all the belts, count kicks, specialty kicks, and sparring. The sparring involved 8 rounds against different experienced black belts, a two on one round, and a 5 on one round. I made some mistakes, but I was surprised by how much of the complicated curriculum I was able to get through because I’d repeated it so many times that it was committed to muscle memory. And there was a moment in the sparring when I was completely anaerobic, had tunnel vision, and my legs were not working well. But I was somehow able to do what I’d trained for. And the connection to public safety hit me at that moment.

First responders train and repeat over and over so that when they’re scared, exhausted, or overwhelmed they still do what they’re trained to do.