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One Beach One Lifeguard

The small 5-year-old, brown skinned, dark haired girl played in the sand with her little sister on the beach. Their fully clothed mother and grandmother laid out a tablecloth and set the china place settings out with well practiced movements. It was a summer day in 1943 at the beach by Murdoch’s Bathhouse.

Barbara, the older of the two, looked off and spotted someone. Smiling, she asked if she could go visit her “friend”. Her mom, Alberta Stevens, said she could but to “hurry back and don’t bother him too much”. She ran as fast as her little 5-year-old legs could carry her up to the lifeguard chair and looked up to the mountain of a man sitting up there. He waved her up smiling. As she started to climb, he reached down and picked her up, tossing her into the air while she giggled. She snuggled into his lap as he kept a watchful eye on the swimmers. It was a calm day with light crowds, and both sat for a while comfortably relaxed.

After a time, she turned to him so he could read her lips and said, “Mr. Colombo, why doesn’t anyone ever help you?”  He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and held up his index finger. “One beach…” little Barbara said, as he then pointed to himself with his thumb and then held up his finger again. “…one lifeguard!” she squealed laughing, as she always did at this game.

Of course, I took a bit of “artistic license” here since it happened way before that little 5-year-old grew up and gave birth to me, but it’s based on stories Mom told me and a popular saying about Colombo that’s been passed down in beach lore. It does, however, exemplify a basic difference in lifeguarding philosophy (and public safety philosophy) that’s changed in relatively recent times.

Back when recreational swimming first became a “craze”, and modern lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene, the idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on their own. Rightfully so, since they generally worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup. When things go bad in the water it happens quickly, so if help arrives in time it would have to already be on the way before trouble started. In Colombo’s day, those kinds of resources were not a possibility economically or culturally. Someone of his swimming ability was the exception to the norm and that’s partly why he was so special.

The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the extent that we look at the whole rescue “chain”. Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. Safer for the rescuers and more effective.

It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizzazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard”.

Photo courtesy of Signing Savvy
YOUR SIGN LANGUAGE RESOURCE
signingsavvy.com

 

Bikes and Training

Whether you’re hunkering down with the groceries you bought before the crowds descended or out in the mix reveling in one of the largest events of this type anywhere, its hard not to notice its Biker Rally Weekend. I personally am a fan despite the inconvenience when moving around. I grew up riding as a kid on motocross style bikes, and rediscovered road bikes later as an adult. And as a professional people watcher I love all the different subcultures of the biker world out there.  Plus, the biker rally crowd typically don’t spend a lot of time in the water or driving their expensive bikes on the sand itself. We assist EMS and Fire with medical calls and help GPD a bit with the crowds, but it’s not a 4th of July kind of thing.

This week we started reducing our beach coverage somewhat and diverted some of our staff each day to the big job of tower refurbishment and repair. Considering weather and training breaks, this is scheduled to be a two-month job. We’ll also be focusing some training time on our typical operational winter training which includes medical, law enforcement, boat operations, and SCUBA training.

This winter is unique in that we’re going to focus our energy not only on external operational skills, but also internal training. We’re a hybrid organization in so many ways. We’re a public safety group that specializes primarily in ocean rescue and medical response, but also do a fair amount of code enforcement through both our peace officers and non-sworn staff. Most importantly, we have a lot of seasonal workers that aren’t part of the traditional public safety culture, have employees with over 50 years difference in ages, and a good mix of gender and ethnicities. Its critical that all these people work in a supportive environment in relative harmony, so that we can put maximum effort into protecting swimmers and responding to emergencies. And we all need to be able to communicate in a way that is respectful and isn’t misinterpreted. So, we are integrating training in intercultural competency, alcohol awareness, and in a program we started last year targeting resiliency for first responders. We’re also stepping up the training we’ve traditionally provided in leadership, workplace harassment, and other areas, and have formed a diverse committee to monitor culture throughout the organization.

In our lifeguard academy we stress the importance of a strong body, mental preparation through a well-developed and practiced skill set, and strength of spirit. With the first two we’re pretty adept at teaching and enforcing the practice necessary. But, although we allude to the importance of a strong spirit, we didn’t really have the tools to teach it effectively. But this new training will help us teach our staff to better support and take care of themselves and each other, so we can better take care of the public.

And despite our differences, our staff is incredibly united in the desire to be the best we can be to keep people safe.

Visit Galveston

Cooling Down

Traditionally, we always look at Halloween as the point where the water is too cold to see much activity. That has gone out the window with so much else, but it is a marker that things are starting to cool down. When the seasons change, it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s instead of the 80’s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

We’ve still been busy, particularly on the weekends. Having our seasonal lifeguards, who work in the towers, gone had meant our Full-Time crew has had to step it up, which they’ve done. They’re having a competition to see who can put the most miles on their vehicles as they patrol. Without the towers, keeping moving is the name of the game so we can keep those swimmers out of the rip currents near the rocks.

As a lifeguard told me a while back, the end of the season is a kind of “bittersweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work, it’s a relief for them to get out of the “thunder dome”. But they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense and so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff, in addition to patrolling daily, also continues to respond to 911 calls 24 hours a day throughout the winter.  In addition, we also start off season maintenance duties soon. In addition to replacing beach signs and repairing equipment, we’ll soon start the main task for winter, which is to rebuild and replace the 24 lifeguard towers we put out on the beach each season. Other duties include website redesign, water safety education outreach, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. It goes fast and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding for spring break.

One really nice thing about cooler weather and not having that heavy press of people on the beach, is that our team gets a chance to drop down to a 40-hour work week, and get some time with family, to train, catch up on their chores at home, or even go for a low stress surf session. I’m really happy for them to get some normal days with a normal stress level after one of the most difficult seasons that we’ve been through in recent history.

There are still plenty of beautiful days on the beach so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most. See you there!

Surf Roots

At 10 my friend David Schutz and I bought surfboards. I think our moms were sick of us riding homemade skim boards in the ditch and both of us coming in for dinner covered in oozy abrasions. Mine was a smashed up 5’11” yellowed Dale Dobson and his was a 6’1” green Petrillo. Beautiful. It was 1975, short boards hadn’t been around long, and every board had one fin. We sucked. But man, we had fun! My mom took us up to the beach at 47th all the time, and we’d stand in waist deep water and push into waves thinking we were superstars.

In 6th grade I went to a new school and met surfers that lived near me. We’d ride bikes up to 53rd and surf together for fun and for protection from the older, better, meaner surfers. Our friend group grew and we got better. There weren’t a lot of surfers around then and we knew most everyone by sight if not personally.

Being the 70’s there was this sort of hippy vibe to the whole surf scene. Lots of the older, hardcore guys worked jobs that they could ditch when the fickle Texas surf came up. A bunch of them worked at the Glassing Factory or Freestyle Fins. Both of those places were pretty tolerant if you took off for a month or two to go down to Mexico or farther on safari. They also closed down on days with surf and they’d all hit the water. Some of the best local surfers worked there and it was pretty humbling if you were out in the lineup when they all paddled out together.

One day I drifted out too far with the rip into the lineup and got in one of the real superstar’s way. I dove under and heard the boards crack. “YOU STUPID KOOK!” he yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” I yelled/stammered, my little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to smash my face for a minute, and then seemed to think better of pummeling an 11-year-old. Instead, he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he ignored and kept surfing). He turned, glared, and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”

Now, 47 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s at least one “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.

Surfing culture has changed as the sport has grown and become more mainstream. Its more inclusive and less territorial. It may have lost some of its mystique, but the waves are the same.

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