Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preventative Actions

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

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

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

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

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

Whale

The small whale thrashed on the shoreline as a representatives of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network tried to get in close to help it out by getting a line to administer medication with. By “small” I mean maybe 10-11 foot, so it was really dangerous for them to get close enough to help.

This particular whale looked like it had some facial trauma that may have been the cause of it choosing to beach itself. Whales and dolphins will do almost anything not to drown, so would rather spend their last moments on shore instead of dying in the open water. Unfortunately, in this case there wasn’t much of anything people could do to help, other than providing some small comforts like keeping its skin moist and just being there with it as it transitioned. I hope it was comforted by how much they wanted to help and how much those wonderful MMSN workers care about our mammalian partners in the ocean.

Whales are rarely seen in our parts, but dolphins beach themselves regularly. And they’re all over the place in the water. Most of the times people think they see sharks from the beachfront and run to the guard telling them to close the beach they’ve been lucky enough to spot a bottle nose dolphin’s dorsal fin as they surface to grab a breath. They are fun to be near in the water as the joy they seem to radiate as they play in the waves is infectious. There have been a couple of times recently I’ve been out training or surfing, and dolphins were riding waves and jumping way out to the water. If you’ve ever been close to one that comes up to check you out it’s a little bit unnerving. Its like looking into another person’s eye, not just because of the similarity in the eyes themselves, but because its so clear that they are intelligent and as curious about us as we are about then. And with language that is decidedly more complex than ours and their big brains, there’s no telling what they’re discussing. When they’re near, just go underwater and listen and you’ll hear them chatting away, no doubt talking about you.

Back to our whale’s story. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it. It was too big and too dangerous to move to the rehabilitation center, not that it had much of a chance anyway. But that’s not the case for many of the other cetaceans that come ashore. Many have been rehabilitated and returned to the ocean. And the ones that are dead by the time we see them get necropsied so they can better track the reasons that they die and understand our partners better.

I can’t say enough about the MMSN. They even teach classes about how to help when you encounter a stranding that our staff and our junior guards have gone through. Remember, if you’re interested you can learn more, volunteer, or contribute by checking out their website at www.dolphinrescue.org.

Storm Response

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

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

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

 

 

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

Labord Day and kids with a bucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Image courtesy of KSAT

Labor Day Prep

We had a very near miss with Hurricane Ida. Remember, as tired as we all are of all kinds of stressors, we’re still only in the middle of storm season. Maintain vigilance and stay tuned to advice from our local experts. Especially be sure you have your plan together and everything is in order for a quick evacuation if needed.

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. Fortunately we have a lot of help from other groups. The Coastal Zone Management team has cleared paths to the water at the San Luis Pass and at the beach parks to allow for first responders to access the beachfront. Our partners in the Galveston Marine Response have trained and prepared and are staffing extra help. The County Emergency Response Team (C.E.R.T.) will provide valuable support at the San Luis Pass and Boddecker drive to augment our dedicated lifeguard patrol keeping people from entering those dangerous tidal areas. And, of course, our dedicated group of “Wave Watchers” will provide an extra layer of surveillance, help with lost children, and be there in many other ways.

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 the shoreline. Water is not our natural environment. 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.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings and think about potential risks at the beach or any other body of water does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, non-swimmers  and children should wear properly fitted lifejackets, and take precautions for the heat and sun. At the beach, it’s very important to 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. Also avoid areas with strong tides like the ends of the island. Both the San Luis Pass and Boddecker Drive areas are illegal to swim in.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association agencies, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” 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.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it.

Drowning at 61st

Last Tuesday morning a man got to the beach at 61st early, walked around a bit, left his things just east of the pier, and went into the water. The time that elapsed at that point is unclear, but when the lifeguard arrived on location, all he saw was calm, clear, water with a tiny hint of clean waves rolling onto the beach. Unlike most mornings this season, there were only a handful of people on the beach.

As the lifeguard prepared for the day, he opened the tower, raised the appropriate flags, arranged his things, and left tracks to and from the water when he checked the conditions. He looked for unusually strong currents or drop offs, and felt which way the current was going, so he’d have an idea how far to keep people from the groin and what hazards he would protect them from. After his usual routine, he settled in for his shift.

A short time later, he spotted a body floating in about chest deep water, maybe 50 yards from the rocks on the east side. He notified dispatch and ran into the water. The guard at 59th reported he had no swimmers near his groin and was cleared to run down and help. A supervisor arrived a very short time later as they dragged the man from the water onto the sand. The three of them did CPR, intubated the man, and hooked him up to the AED (Automatic External Defibrillator). The machine did not advise a shock. They continued CPR with the help of the Fire Department and EMS when they arrived. The man was quickly loaded into the ambulance, and they drove away. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

Once the ambulance, police vehicles, fire truck, and Beach Patrol rescue trucks left the area, the beach returned to the quiet, apparently innocuous, day it started as with the exception of our tire tracks and prints from walking, dragging and kneeling.

There was more. We interviewed people to try to figure out what happened. Gathered his things off the beach and let city officials, other public safety groups, and the media know what happened. Wrote up a report that contained everything we could figure out and sent it to the Medical Examiner’s office. Talked to the man’s two sisters and met with one to give her his things. Reviewed the event internally to determine if we did everything we could have and what we can do to prevent a similar occurrence. One of the most critical things is that we contacted our partners at the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network to contact the family to see if they could offer any type of psychological or spiritual support, and to set up a critical incident counselling session with the guards who responded, to make sure they were ok and will continue to be ok.

The marks we made on the sand were washed away with the next high tide.

Lightning Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt