Posts

Wave Watchers

Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from my friend Mark Porretto. He told me there were two kids close to the rip current on the west side of the Pleasure Pier. He added that they weren’t in immediate danger, but that we should check on them. I immediately radioed our “on call” unit and they were on scene within a couple of minutes. The kids were removed from the water just as they got to the edge of a strong rip current next to the posts.

Mark and I grew upon the beach together. We both surfed. We both rode bikes up and down the seawall in Jr. High and High School. We both worked and spent all of our spare time on the beach and in the water. He has a good lifeguard eye and calls me periodically to let me know when he sees problems developing on the beach. Those calls through the years have resulted in many accidents prevented and, no doubt, several lives saved. When Mark calls I know he knows what he’s talking about and I make sure one of us responds quickly.

Mark isn’t the only one that makes these calls. I have a number of beach people that help by keeping an eye out when they drive down the seawall or visit the beach. And the lifeguards I work with each have their own network that does the same thing. Add all of the people without direct connection to one of our staff who call the Beach Patrol or the city dispatch non-emergency number to let us know when there is some kind of problem on the beach and you have a serious force multiplier. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who help us do the difficult job of keeping millions safe each year.

This year we will be formalizing this process with a new program called “Wave Watchers”. Designed by our very own year-round Supervisor Dain Buck, our goal is to essentially train volunteers to do the same thing that Mark Porretto does. We’ll teach them to identify rip currents and other hazards on the beach, recognize swimmers who are in distress, spot dangerous environmental conditions. They’ll also be trained in CPR, First Aid, and Beach Patrol operational procedures. If they wish they can volunteer on busy weekends to manage first aid and lost child stations and to keep an eye out along the entire beach front.

Keeping all 33 miles of beach safe is more than any one group can do. We are lucky to have partners in the other public safety groups on the island and in the community who help. It definitely takes a village.

Very soon we will be putting out information on how to join our team of Wave Watchers. If you or someone you know is interested, send your contact information to Supervisor Dain Buck at dbuck@galvestonparkboard.org and he’ll make sure you get program and registration information as soon as he makes it public.

Go Texas Beaches!

Some exciting things to do with ocean safety are happening in Texas right now.

Galveston has had some type of lifeguard protection for recreational swimmers since just a few years after 1900. This isn’t the case for most of the Texas coast. For many years the beaches of South Padre Island didn’t have any type of lifeguard protection at all. Now there are two lifeguard services on South Padre Island, one for the city of South Padre Island and one for Cameron County. We helped them both get off the ground a few years ago, and they eventually joined and became certifying agencies for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA). The USLA is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers . The USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.

The Corpus Christi area is another story. Both the city of Corpus and that of Port Aransas have had some type of lifeguard organization for a number of years. Although they never had the structure, resources, and quality of the Galveston Beach Patrol, back in the early 90’s they were fairly well organized and we even had competitions and other types of interaction with them for a brief period. They’ve gone through several changes- some political and some related to resources, but overall seem to have declined over the past few years. That seems to be at an end. For a long time they have been using a Red Cross pool certification for their lifeguards. The formal training they’ve received does not prepare them for working the beach. It is also way below what the national standard is. Not only is this a liability for the cities, but is a disservice for the lifeguards and the people they protect. Making a rescue in the ocean is really dangerous even if you’re properly trained, equipped, and meet a high level of swimming and fitness requirement.

The Corpus group recently hired a new lifeguard chief who was one of the people we trained down in South Padre. He and his boss have applied for their agency to join USLA and plan on implementing training that meets the national standard that USLA sets this spring. They invited us down to teach a “train the trainers” course at the end of this month and were open to including the Port Aransas group in the course. The Port Aransas group is also applying to USLA and is planning the same. They may even have joint training courses for the two groups in the late spring.

The big picture is that now, as long as Texans choose a beach with lifeguards, they will get protection that meets the USLA national standard. USLA statistics show that your chance of drowning at a beach with USLA certified guards is 1 in 18 million. That’s a good deal for Texas.

Night Swim 2016

Most schools are still in session for one more week, so next weekend really marks the beginning of the full summer season. And it will start with a bang, since the 30th annual American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition will be held Saturday. This year we expect over 60 teams to compete for the coveted “Golden Bucket Award”. If you’re like me and hate crowds, the insider tip is to go down Sunday morning early. We have security Saturday night which allows for an additional day to view these works of art.

Last week over 70 lifeguards participated in the 28th annual “Night Swim” followed by a complimentary meal at the Float. Not only is it the final physical challenge for the lifeguard candidates, but the whole staff jumps in with them. We rotate the person who designs the course so it’s different each year. This year was the brainchild of Supervisor Lauren Hollaway, and she was especially cruel.

It started at 27th with a run to 17th and back. We then grabbed fins, swam from 27th around the Pleasure Pier to 24th, jumped off the groin and swam back around the Pleasure Pier against the current. From there a run to 37th, where we got on rescue boards and paddled to 27th. And it didn’t stop there. After running the groin we jumped off the rocks again and swam without fins around the Pleasure Pier to 24th and made a final run back to 27th. The 2 miles of swimming, 3 miles of running, and 1 mile of paddling were made even tougher by 4 foot surf, strong current, and some serious competition. All of our guards meet a really high swimming fitness requirement, but we have some that are amazing athletes. Few compare to the two that dominated the race. John Obrien is a lifetime swimmer, triathlete, and Cross Fit instructor. Joe Cerdas ran track, is a great surfer, and is the undisputed champion of stand up paddle (SUP) racing in Texas- he hasn’t lost a race in 4 years. Both compete regularly in Lifeguard Sport, which includes swimming, running, rescue board racing, and surf ski (like a long ocean kayak).

The two went head to head for an hour and twenty minutes. John led most of the way with his superior swimming ability, until Joe used his intimate knowledge of currents to get close to him on the paddle. Finally, at the very end of the final swim, Joe squeaked by for his second victory in a row. I was pleased at 50 years of age to pull off a 4th place.  Everyone was a champion and finished the course, with the final finishers coming in after 2 1/2 hours of torture.

The great thing about finishing an event like this is that, once they get through it, the guards know to the core of their being that they can physically and mentally handle way more than they ever imagined.

They will need that confidence for what lays ahead.

 

Fin Cut and Night Swim

Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.

When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.

It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.

In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.

Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.

Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!

Mass Rescue

The report of the incident starts out, “15:04 Unit 290,Supervisor Buck & Stewart, dispatched by headquarters for swimmers out to far at TWR 25.  Unit 290 rolls from 28 and sand.

15:05 Unit 290 gets on location.  From the beach we can see 5 swimmers about 50 yards off shore  …  My partner, Supervisor Stewart immediately heads into the water to check the swimmers…”

As most of you are probably aware, the rescue of five people at 26th street a couple of weeks ago received quite a bit of media attention. Our full time Lifeguard Supervisor/EMT Mary Stewart was credited with these rescues. Mary is a fantastic lifeguard, wonderful employee, and deserves every bit of this attention. The scary thing is that she almost drowned during the process, as one of the two victims she was attempting to bring to shore panicked and climbed on top of her and pushed her under water, as she tried to simultaneously fight him off and keep a small child afloat.

Not to take anything away from Mary, but there was more to the story than most of the media outlets reported. Despite Mary continually praising her co-rescuers during interviews, the public story cut that part out.

Meanwhile the report tells a more complete picture:

“Once my partner gets to the swimmers I receive the “ok” signal and return to shore and my radio to relay the “ok” signal.  Immediately after radioing everything is ok I see my partner signal for help.  15:07 I radio HQ to send back up and that I will be in the water to assist.  294 begins to roll from 18th and wall.   The guard from TWR 25,Dornak,  had brought 3 swimmers closer to shore where I met them with the rescue board.  Dornak then headed back to Supervisor Stewart to assist with the two swimmers she was bringing to shore.

15:09 Unit 294, Supervisor Garcia & Sr. Guard Letnich, arrive on scene.  Myself and my three victims are now in waist deep water, I instruct Sr.  Guard Letnich to go see if Stewart or Dornak need any more assistance.  I take my three victims to Unit 294 with Supervisor Garcia to get further checked out.”

Obviously there is quite a bit more going on. Jared Dornak stabilized the situation, brought three victims to Supervisor Dain Buck, then helped Mary bring the two she was wrestling with to shore, which may have saved her life. Dain watched everyone’s safety while still effecting three rescues himself and making sure backup was on the way so we could keep the ratio of rescuers to victims at an acceptable level.

There are layers of protection built into our system, which makes a dangerous job less so because we can provide all our guards with quick backup. These layers are there because we are provided enough resources to do lifesaving the right way. This event demonstrates clearly that we would have lost at least a couple of lives if this were not the case. And that we have many heroes in our ranks.

 

Storm Scare

A pop up storm can cause us to walk a tightrope and really highlights the interdependence of the groups that care for and protect our beaches.

 

History shows us that a tide of more than 3.5 feet above average puts our lifeguard towers at risk, which potentially could cost several hundred thousand dollars. It’s also been demonstrated that if we wait too long to get down there and move the towers, we can reach the point of no return where the equipment to move them can’t get down there, and high water, strong winds and sometimes lightning can put our crews at undue risk. The problem is that the farther we are out from the weather event the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 

This week really demonstrated how this works and how much we rely on our partners. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service predicted terrible weather headed our way. By terrible, we’re talking about up to 10 inches of rain in some areas, potential lightning, hail, and tornados, and tidal surge coupled with 30 mph winds and offshore waves of up to 15 feet. Bad. But the tides were only predicted to be around 3 or 3 ½ feet, which under “normal” circumstances wouldn’t warrant all the trouble, expense, and potential damage that moving all 31 towers off of the beach would incur.

 

The NWS office put out updates every few hours and we, as well as the other public safety agencies and city staff, had been following them closely. Our Emergency Management Office kept checking to make sure we all had the latest info as well. I can’t really adequately explain how much the NWS crew does for us and all the other groups they work with including the general public. One example is that one of the guys up there who is also a friend sent me a text late Monday evening saying that the projected offshore wave height had increased and that there was a good chance that on the beach the waves and wind could push that maximum tidal height up even more and could potentially cause the water to reach the base of the seawall. Talk about a hot tip!

 

So, at 10:30 at night I called Jesse Ojeda, who heads up the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board. Without hesitation his answer was, “We’ll start at 5am”. Wow! By the time I checked with him at 6:30 they’d already gotten half of them up to the top of the seawall where they’d be safe. And since the wind wasn’t going to blow harder than about 30mph we didn’t have to truck them all the way to another part of the island.

 

Good to have friends!

 

Stay tuned because lifeguard tryouts and spring break start tomorrow. Time to start the beach season!

Thank You SSN Groups

Sometimes it seems like we all scurry about for most of our lives. The politics, games, gluttony, maneuvering, manipulation and acquisition of things is a fantastic distraction. If not careful we can get so caught up that it completely disconnects us from what really matters.

There are times in all of our lives when critical things happen. Birth and death, tragedy and events that cause intense joy give us an opportunity to touch something real. One of the most important things we can tap into is the opportunity to be present and supportive when others are going through these critical junctures in their lives. There’s always a reason that we can’t be there, always something that seems more critical. But if we take a moment to weigh the options there are few things that truly take precedence in the big picture. Unfortunately, many people and organizations miss these opportunities because we are scurrying around dealing with whatever it is that we’re so busy doing all the time that we don’t really remember afterwards.

I would like to acknowledge a few groups that made it a point to be there when it was most needed. First is the Jesse Tree, with its wonderful group of volunteers and too few paid staff members. The Jesse Tree has worked against insurmountable odds to keep their doors open and continue to serve a variety of populations with no other recourse. It’s a true calling for them and it’s been an inspiration and honor to work alongside them. The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support has been busy this year and responded to a number of tragic drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. But they haven’t had to go it alone.

Thank you to several Galveston businesses and volunteers for their commitment and support.

There were many hotels. The Red Roof Inn at 5914 Seawall Blvd were there with rooms and meeting spaces and more for multiple events. The Commodore on the Beach Hotel, 3618 Seawall Blvd., Four Points by Sheraton, 2300 Seawall Blvd., Gaido’s Seaside Inn, 3700 Seawall Blvd., Best Western Plus Seawall Inn & Suites by the Beach, 102 Seawall Blvd. all came forward when most needed at no benefit to themselves.

In several of these situations a gathering room was provided for large groups of family members so they could have a place to commune during a search which lasted days. Rooms were provided for sleeping as well. But when people are grieving its critical to make sure both body and spirit are nourished. Restaurants such as Tortuga’s at 6010 Seawall Blvd and The Float Pool and Patio Bar at 2828 Seawall Blvd volunteered food, as did the Lighthouse Charity Cooking Team.

Support also came from the Galveston County Emergency Response Team, who searched tirelessly, and from EZ Bike Rental at 4712 Seawall Blvd and Galveston Real Estate Resource.

Anyone interested in supporting and/or participating with The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, please call Sheila Savage at 409-771-2545.

All of these groups honor our community and represent the best in and of us.

1900 Storm

By the time 1900 rolled around, Galveston was the undisputed cultural and recreational center of this part of the country. Almost 500 bars and 50 brothels put it on par with the historically raucous New Orleans, and it ranked 2nd in the country for cotton exports and 3rd in wheat. Dredging ensured a constant flow of vessels in its deep water port and beautiful mansions lined Broadway, which at 9 feet of elevation was the highest street at the time.

Brothers Isaac and Joseph Cline ran the Galveston office of the National Weather Service and did their best to warn people of the upcoming storm, although they did not have the early detection systems we enjoy today. With only three ways off the island, 3 railroad bridges and one wagon bridge, it would have made little difference anyway.

We all know the story, or at least parts of it. On September 8th the island was battered by 120 mile winds and a storm surge of 15.7 feet. Isaac’s wife took refuge in the Cline house with a crowd and a streetcar came loose in the floodwaters and demolished the house. Her body wasn’t found for two weeks. The first six blocks on the beach side was completely cleared of buildings. 90 orphans and 10 nuns died when the roof of the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum collapsed. Over 6,000 people died on the island, and the total death toll was around 10,000 as the big storm lumbered all the way up to Canada. The morning after the storm many of those who survived had been clinging to floating wreckage for hours as they watched loved ones crushed and mangled all around them throughout the night. At first light they found a 30 block pile of debris comprised of parts of houses, businesses, as well as animal and human carcasses. Bodies were collected, weighted down, and sent off on rafts. They then floated back days later, bloated and almost unrecognizable. The task of burning the thousands of bodies was assigned to African American workers, often at gunpoint, which no doubt added to the increasing racial tension during this era of Jim Crow.

But, somehow we recovered. With the help of volunteers from Houston, the Red Cross, US Army, and Salvation Army, we cleaned up and started rebuilding. A new commission-style municipal government got things done. We built the first section of the seawall, raising parts of the island as high as 17 feet, deposited 500 city blocks of landfill, built a two mile concrete causeway, and made numerous improvements to the wharves.

At the recent kickoff for the large beach re-nourishment projects, Jerry Patterson described Galvestonians as being “resilient”. It’s hard to imagine us doing something of the magnitude of our forefathers. Often we seem to argue more than build. This project is, however, very encouraging. I wonder if this is a portent.

With the 1900 storm as our shared mythology and a beacon to what potential we as Galvestonians possess, who knows what we’re capable of?

 

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Winter Is Here

Water temperature in the 50’s is a game changer. Even our hard core surfers don’t last long with the 3 millimeter wetsuits most Texans wear, and the only swimmers we encounter seem to be Russian or Canadian.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and got to spend time with people they care about. This is always a great time to reflect on things we’re grateful for. I personally feel really appreciative of the hard work our staff did this season, the support of all the groups we work with and the community of Galveston, and the chance to slow down for a bit, recharge the batteries, and fill in some details that we couldn’t get to during the busy season.

We’re almost at the end of our patrol season with this weekend being the last where we’re proactively out there checking the beaches for a while. Most of our crew has been working hard refurbishing our 28 lifeguard towers while alternating the days they take a patrol shift. They’ve also been doing one last pass of replacement and repair of the 300 or so signs we maintain along 33 miles of beachfront. But starting December 1st everyone will focus on finishing the towers up so they can spend the remaining time until everyone is able to work on individual projects.

Each of our full time supervisors has an area of responsibility that they take full charge of. There is a window of time from late December until March 1st when they have time to get the bulk of this work done. Some of the areas are board and craft repair/maintenance, website upgrades, virtual lifeguard museum, recruiting/water safety video projects, policy and procedure manual updates, training material preparation, and ordering supplies and equipment.

One major change we are trying to make is to move to an almost completely paperless system. We recently purchased computers for each vehicle so reports can be done while overseeing a zone of responsibility. We’re getting close to purchasing an electronic records management system for storage and easy retrieval of reports and other documents. My hope is that by 2016 we can operate with 90% digital files and documents.

There’s an upcoming event that I wanted to mention. We’ll follow up with more details, but the annual public safety Christmas parade is scheduled for Saturday, December 13th in the morning. This event has been growing and has been a fun X-mas holiday kick off. It’s been a nice way for first responders from different agencies to show our community how appreciative we are for the support we receive. Also it’s an opportunity for the community to show support for everything these hard working public safety organizations’ men and women do.

From all of us at the Galveston Beach Patrol we hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season. Hopefully you’ll have the time and opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the things and people that are most important to you.

The System

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about the relationship between the city and the Park Board. When the Park Board was originally formed, it was intended to be a vehicle for tourism management. The beach, being Galveston’s primary attraction and driver of tourism, was a big part of that equation. It’s tough to talk about the relationship between the city and Park Board without including the management of the beaches, namely Beach Patrol, Beach Maintenance, and Beach Parks Departments. No matter how nice the attractions, hotels, and restaurants on the island may be, they would have a tough time staying afloat if they were located in the desert.

Making sure the beach is clean and safe is an integral part of the tourist experience. If there was a general perception that the beaches were not well maintained and well protected, tourists would not come in the numbers they do now. If they didn’t visit the beach, they wouldn’t be on the island to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, or visit any of the wonderful amenities the island has to offer. Creative and comprehensive advertising is important, but it only works for the long term if you have a good product to promote. A clean and safe beach with decent amenities is the best advertising there is.

To make sure the beaches were managed properly, in the very early 80’s a highly intelligent group of people figured out a system that enabled us to have adequate resources to keep the beaches maintained and protected by a first class lifeguard outfit. Lifeguards and Beach Maintenance were moved under the Park Board of Trustees. Actually financial management fell under the Park Board but operational oversight of the Beach Patrol was moved from the Police Department to the Sheriff Department at the same time the funding source changed (Nowadays, the Beach Patrol is a mature organization and is an independent lifesaving and law enforcement entity). Using tourist dollars that came to the Park Board in the form of hotel tax (H.O.T.) monies and beach user fees guaranteed this independent funding source because the money came with the caveat that it could only be used for specific purposes. Beach Patrol received one penny for every dollar spent in the hotels.

When the first large beach nourishment project happened, Beach Patrol received an extra half a penny of hotel revenue to help cover the increase of beach use the new sand enabled. But a decade and a half ago, about a third of a penny (22% of the Beach Patrol’s H.O.T. allocation) was taken from Beach Patrol and Beach Maintenance to help build the Convention Center on the Seawall. How this affected the operational sustainability of both programs is another story, but the upside of using H.O.T. tax monies and beach user fees is that, in theory, as tourism grows the two programs could grow proportionally.

We all owe a lot to the group that designed this system.