The older guard pointed to the west side of the 47th street groin as he pulled the jeep over quickly. “Look at that rip, let’s go check it out!” he yelled as the pair sprinted down the rocks and jumped off a rock that was “just right”. The older guard then made them climb up the rocks again despite the churning surf, algae, and barnacles. Over and over the pair climbed up and jumped back into the surf before getting back in the jeep and racing up and down the seawall moving swimmers and checking on guards.
I worked with Jim Dobbins on weekends during the mid 80’s. The days were full and active. Lunches generally lasted about 15 minutes and consisted of a quick bowl of rice in his beachside apartment. I learned a great deal.
He taught the guards how to work the rocks. In those years a guard worked a groin all summer and Jim knew each rock of each groin. He taught guards where it was “safe” to jump from, and how to move around on the rocks without getting cut up. An avid surfer, he knew the rip currents well, and taught the guards how to use them to get to a victim quickly. He was a ball of energy as he made each guard that worked the seawall swim his/her area each morning so they would know exactly where the holes and currents were for the day (a practice that we continue to this day). He was relentless in stressing the importance of getting to someone before they actually got in trouble.
Dr. Jim Dobbins was an Epidemiologist working as a professor at UTMB in those years. As a teacher, he didn’t like being away from hands on preventative work in his field. With the Beach Patrol he was able to put theory into practice in the direct prevention of injury on Galveston’s beaches. He went on to work for the Center for Disease Control in a research program and later was employed by the World Health Organization. With the W.H.O he was able to once again take a hands-on approach as the guy who was tasked with handling potential infectious disease outbreaks in the Caribbean.
On Jim’s first day of work he responded to 7 people on inner tubes getting pushed into the South Jetty under extreme conditions. He was able to push them through a gap one by one and finally able to get himself through. He was shredded by rocks and exhausted but committed to preventing this type of thing from happening. He devised a strategy where people were kept far from the jetty, which we still employ.
Now in his 70’s Jim visits Galveston periodically. He likes to talk about the old days. But I think he really enjoys seeing how proactive we’ve become as an agency. Many of the techniques we use to keep people from ever getting into trouble today are based on strategies he implemented. After all, prevention is the essence of both Epidemiology and Lifesaving.