Posts

Water Safety

This week has been a great example of why Galveston in the fall is such a great combination. The water still hovers just over 70 degrees and the days have been beautiful. We still run patrol vehicles and are scheduled to do that until December 1st, at which time we’ll focus on rebuilding lifeguard towers, repairing equipment, replacing signs and rescue boxes that need it, and a thousand other small things we need to do to prepare for the next season. Of course, if this type of weather comes back around, we’ll divert our resources back up to the beach front to make sure everyone is OK. We also continue to respond to emergency calls day or night just as we do the rest of the year, so if you need us for something urgent just dial 911.

We responded with our partners in the police, fire, and EMS to a pool incident earlier this week. That call reminded me that, although we specialize in beach and surf lifesaving, there is a broader world of water safety. At times we are so preoccupied with our primary concern of rip currents and other beach related issues that we neglect to stress the importance of some very basic safety advice.

As the president of the United States Lifesaving Organization, which specializes in open water lifeguarding, one of my duties is to sit on the board of a really wonderful group called “Water Safety USA” www.watersafetyusa.org . Water Safety USA is a roundtable of longstanding national nonprofit and governmental organizations with a strong record of providing drowning prevention and water safety programs, including public education. Part of our mission is to tease out commonalities in water safety messaging between the 14 members and encourage them to put out information the same way. That way the public will not receive so many similar messages that are presented different ways. Unified messaging is much more effective and hopefully more likely to stay in people’s minds.

At this point there are two main messages Water Safety USA promotes. The first is “Water Safety- Its Learning to Swim and So Much More”. The importance of learning to swim is fairly obvious, but the idea is part of a larger framework of skills and information that keep you safe when in or around the water. The second is “Designate a Water Watcher, Supervision Could Save a Life”. The idea here is that when kids are swimming there should be an older responsible person whose sole responsibility is to watch them and make sure they’re safe. The third message will be released in the spring and has to do with the use of life jackets when in or around the water.

Remember that backyard pools and other bodies of water claim many more lives each year than the beach. And winter does not mean that you can drop your guard. Supervision, barrier devices, learning to swim, etc. are key components to making sure water is what it should be- something to enjoy safely.

Offshore Winds

If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out. When the wind blows offshore it creates a unique set of circumstances that can potentially be lethal. This is mostly a danger during the spring and fall when repeated frontal systems pass across the Texas coast. When someone is blown offshore on a floating object they can quickly realize that it gets rougher the farther from the shoreline you drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. This is why we don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north.

Dusk is the absolute worst time to get a call like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond your field of vision really quickly. Remember looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables you to see 3 miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves or chop this distance is lessened. Once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding him/her drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop significantly. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is why we move so quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or at least the “last seen point”, until we can launch a jet ski. We’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind and current when we had at least a last seen point.

A few years ago a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surf boat on a strong off-shore wind day. A surf boat is essentially a two person row boat with a closed bottom and big holes in the sides that allow wave water to run out. They were only about 50 yards from shore when one lost an oar and decided to swim in and get help. The other couldn’t maintain solo against the wind and as he got farther off shore the water got choppier and the wind increased. By the time we got a jet ski into the water, we could no longer see him. It took an hour search following the direction of the wind to find him and another half hour to make it back to shore. We had just decided to call for a Coast Guard Helicopter when we spotted the boat on the horizon. He had drifted about 5 miles by then. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days.

Now that we are getting frontal systems be sure and keep a close eye on the wind direction. Be sure you stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.

Highlights of 2017

Every year when the season slows down we review our season to see how we did. I enjoy the process because it helps show how the Beach Patrol is an entire safety and educational network, as opposed to merely the lifeguard service for the city of Galveston.  The process also helps target areas we can improve on next season. Awfully proud of our crew for all the work that went into these accomplishments! Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Maintained and posted annual statistics with the United States Lifesaving Association. We use these to target areas for improvement and to help show what we do. This year we performed 124,556 preventions, 123 rescues, 160 lost children reunited with families, 1,480 medical responses, and 2,842 enforcement actions
  • Maintained 32 lifeguard towers on beach for the 7 month season
  • Daily patrols vehicles scheduled on the west end from Memorial – Labor Day. We had staffing issues this year that were a challenge, but we hit this goal for the most part
  • Patrolled San Luis Pass with a UTV on weekends from Memorial – Labor Day weekends. They focused on enforcement of our “no swimming” ordinance in the dangerous areas
  • Revised Policy and Procedure manual, a task we do each season to keep us current, efficient, and focused
  • More than doubled last year’s goal by providing talks to 25,900 kids in our School Water Safety Outreach Program.
  • Facilitated the development, training and growth of Texas coastal lifeguarding programs by providing a train-the-trainer course to 12 Beach Patrol managers from South Padre, Cameron County, Corpus Christi, and Port Aransas Beach Patrols
  • At least Beach Patrol representative served the community on Galveston College L.E. Academy board, Better Parks of Galveston, Children’s Museum, and the Galveston Marine Response team.
  • Provided a Basic Water Rescue course for 12 surf instructors and all of the Galveston Fire Department.
  • Increase Social Media footprint. We increased followers from 4,568 to 6,167 from 2016 to 2017, a 26% increase
  • Added movie promo and mass text campaigns to our recruiting efforts
  • Included tourist ambassador training in all three of our Lifeguard Academies.
  • Maintained prominent positions in national and international organizations (Davis- President of United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), Secretary General Americas Region of International Lifesaving Association; Pryor- Chair of USLA Certification Committee, President of Gulf Region of USLA), Harrison on USLA Textbook Revision Committee and Vice Chair of Heroic Acts Committee
  • Conducted an annual review of Park Board Disaster Response Plan
  • Initiate a community based education program called “Wave Watchers”. 11 trained, over 600 hours service completed by volunteers
  • Helped facilitate “Senior Beach Walk” program. Seniors completed more than 20 walks averaging about 7 individuals per walk
  • Junior Lifeguard Program- Increased participants from 104 to 114, 8% inc
  • Emergency Response 24/7/365 and vehicle patrols 10 months out of the year
  • Sent Lifeguard and Jr Guard team of 22 to nationals. Juniors had 15 top 12 finishes. Lifeguard team had 15 top 10 finishes and won 10 medals.
  • Hurricane Harvey- 4 teams helped make 127 urban flood rescues

2017 Rescue Wrap Up

There are still plenty of swimmers and an occasional person blown offshore when these fronts come through. In fact, last Tuesday, Brandon Venegas and Micah Fowler made a rescue of a kite boarder that had some equipment problems and couldn’t make it back in.

The end of the season gives us a chance to assess how we did this year and to recognize those who performed heroic acts or performed outstanding community service. Last Tuesday, while the rescue was taking place, some of us were at the monthly Park Board meeting giving awards.

First the 54 lifeguards who worked during the storm were recognized. Since most couldn’t be there we will save their framed certificates for our next “All Staff” meeting so they can receive it in front of their peers. Then the guards who performed high water/urban flooding rescues were recognized. Their award is a framed certificate and a Beach Patrol “Challenge Coin” for meritorious acts of bravery. Those who worked the urban flooding were: Dain Buck, Joe Cerdas, Daniel Fleming, Micah Fowler, Michelle Gomez, Mason Healy, Austin Kirwin, Gave Macicek, Sam Toth, Alec Vaughn, Tyler Vaughn, Brandon Venegas, Tony Pryor, me, Park Board Coastal Zone Management department’s Larry Smith, and Joey Walker.

There were three rescues that really stood out this summer. The first was an incredible spot and rescue by Juan Figuerroa from 37th of a group of three in the rip current at 33rd. He rescued one that was actively submerging.

The second was a group of 3 way out by the Pleasure Pier T-head spotted by our Lieutenant of Administration on her way home from the office. She swam out through large, choppy surf and stabilized the group at the head of the rip current until Joe Cerdas made it out on a rescue board and brought them one by one through the surf. Few people could have made the spot of those little heads way out close to the west side of the pier as they drove east to west. Even fewer could have managed to power through that nasty, rough surf and brought people in without mishap through the same surf while navigating around the rip.

The final one also occurred as a very nice spot from the 37th street tower to the rip at 33rd early in the morning before all the guards were out. David Garcia called it in and ran down to find two groups of three. He kept one group afloat which included an unconscious man. I arrived first with Lifeguard Camilo Murillo. Camilo went to the second group and was later assisted by Hallie Pauling, to bring all three to safety. David passed the unconscious person to me, brought two to shore, returned to help me bring the last one in as I gave rescue breaths.

All in all this is one of the busiest seasons we’ve had with rough conditions and big crowds most of the summer. But, as always, our crew rose to the occasion.

 

Lifesaving and the Future of Drones

Drones are a hot topic right now in a lot of areas, but the international lifesaving community is becoming more and more interested in them as we look to see the newest developments. It is however hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on a sort of critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone in an area working with the national lifeguard program. These drones reportedly can drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is in the process of drowning and, just as they submerge the flat falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy. Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are being used already in some beaches for overhead surveillance. They fly regularly at a couple of beaches in California for shark spotting. They’re used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. But actual rescue or search and rescue activities appear to still be a little out of reach. The drones that are within the range of most lifeguard programs budgets typically have a flight time of 20-30 minutes, can’t carry much payload, and don’t operate in winds over 20 miles per hour. My guess is that when the cost goes down a bit and agencies can get their hands on drones that have an hour or more of flight time in rougher conditions this may change and they’ll be helpful when looking for missing people.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, then grab them and tow them to shore. Even that they could initiate CPR and maintain until first responders arrive. Still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is starting the conversation about how this type of technology could augment some of the more progressive and resource rich lifesaving services around the world. Even now, larger drones that look like mini airplanes are being used for mountain rescue and are able to drop survival packages to people. In places like Australia they are being used as a way to keep an eye on remote beach locations that lifeguards don’t regularly cover.

Double High Tides

Last weekend was the final day for the seasonal lifeguards to work. This means no more towers or tower lifeguards until next March. We’ll still have patrol units staffed with our fulltime guards out until December, and they’ll be back out patrolling on February 1st. We’ll also respond to 911 calls anytime day or night as we do all year long. But it’s a really good time to remind your family, friends, and loved ones about the basics for beach water safety.

The main thing to remember is that rip currents, which pull away from the shore out to sea, are generally strongest and most prevalent next to structures like rock groins and piers. So be sure if you swim to stay far from these areas and remember the longshore current will pull you parallel to the beach. Pick a fixed object well away from the rocks and use it as a reference point. If you can’t just walk or swim in place, come to shore periodically and walk back down to the area you want to stay in. Also remember not to enter the water at the ends of the island. The ship channel and San Luis Pass both have very strong tidal currents. These areas both have a history of drownings and should be avoided. If you fish, fish from shore.

Lots of people have been talking about the high tide event we had over the past couple of weeks. Actually there were two high tide events back to back and we saw almost 4 foot above normal tides at times. Both the beach and bay were really full and we even experienced minor flooding on some roads and elsewhere. There were several factors that at times combined to cause this:

  1. Full Moon- when the moon is full, it exerts greater gravitational force on the ocean, causing a higher than normal high tide.
  2. East Wind- When the wind blows to Galveston from the east or southeast it blows across a greater distance of water than from the west. This piles the water up ahead of it causing the tides to be higher than normal. So a stiff east wind blowing for a few days can typically cause both the high and low tides to be a foot or more above what a tide chart (astronomical tides) would indicate. The week before Hurricane Nate came through had both a full moon and east winds, so we saw tides up to 3.7 feet above the average (mean) tide.

-3. Storm Surge- Nate’s spinning pushed water ahead of it which caused a storm surge. This repeated the event of the 3.7 foot above normal high tides.

There were times over the past couple of weeks that two or three of these factors combined to cause tides that were much higher than normal. It was a pain in some ways but sure did keep people that fish and surf happy! Perfect clean waves and sunshine were a great way to close out the guarding season.

Gulf Magic

My friend David and I were 11 and 10 when we made skim boards. We rode them after the rains in the flooded ditch in front of my house until our moms couldn’t put up with all the cuts and scrapes anymore and my mom started taking us to the beach. We spent hours and hours skim boarding at low tide until we eventually were ready to take it to the next level. That Christmas we got old beat up boards. His was a Patrillo and mine was a 5’8” Dale Dobson. They were yellow and dinged up and the most beautiful things we’d ever seen. We’d set them on the bed and stand like we were riding while we waited for it to get warm enough to go to the beach.

That next summer we spent a big part of each day in chest deep water and pushing into whitewater until we could stand up in the whitewater and ride straight.

The next year I started at a new school and met Kevin, Jack, and Steve, who had foam boards, bikes, and were already surfing. The four of us lived in the same area and started riding to the beach whenever there were waves. We got wetsuits with beaver tails and were hooked. We’d ride the “mountain trail” at Fort Crocket (now the San Luis Hotel) in the coldest conditions, lock our bikes up at 53rd, surf till we couldn’t feel our feet, and barely make it back to our houses and hot showers.

We widened our net of surfers, but in those years there weren’t too many. In high school all the surfers pretty much knew each other. Some stayed, some got into other sports and other scenes. We lost some to girlfriends, others to drugs, and some to sports like football that were all consuming. But somewhere in there it became more about the ocean and the sport of surfing than about hanging out with friends. I found surfing alone had its own rewards you couldn’t find in groups. Teen problems, a messy parental divorce, family money issues, and everything else melted away when you were surfing glassy waves alone at sunset. More and more I found myself in the water with or without friends before school, at lunch, or between school and work. When I was finally old enough I joined the Beach Patrol and started training in Lifesaving Sport in addition to surfing.

When I left for college in San Antonio, then worked in Africa, went to grad school in California and took a job New York, I missed the Gulf physically. I couldn’t wait to guard in the summer and spend my free time in the salt.

And even after surfing for 41 years and guarding for 35, every morning when I swim or paddle out into the Gulf, I feel that same magic I did when my friend David and I waded out into the water with those beat up boards all those decades ago.

 

Lightning

The lone lifeguard stood on Stewart Beach. The air was thick as a dark, green frontal system moved in from the north.  In the distance lifeguard trucks drove up and down the beach using their loudspeakers to let people know lightning was moving into the area. Bolts of lightning struck nearby.  The lifeguard whistled at the few remaining people in the area and yelled for them to get out of the water. Suddenly, time stood still and the air crackled with electricity. He realized he was lying on his back. A filling in his mouth hurt, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he felt as if insects were running across his temples.

With fall quickly approaching we’ll soon start to see regular frontal systems that bring lightning into the area more frequently. This incident, which happened years ago, is a real reminder that lifeguards and other public safety professionals are not immune to the very dangers they work to protect people from. It is also not very likely to happen again because as our understanding of the lightning processes has improved, we’ve restructured our protocols to minimize danger to our staff by pulling tower guards immediately while we notify the public from our vehicles, and new technology is currently being used to reduce risk to both our staff and to the beach going public.

Lightning most frequently occurs within 10 miles of a thunderstorm, so it is generally recommended that people take shelter when lightning comes within this distance. One way to tell how close lightning is involves counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the corresponding thunder roar. This is known as the “flash to bang rule”. Every five seconds is a mile, so if the time between the flash and the bang is less than 50 seconds, you want to clear out. There are also apps, websites, and devices that let you know how close lightning is to you. At Beach Patrol, we pay an annual fee for a program that not only alerts us when lightning moves within a certain distance, but can predict when this may happen.

It’s not enough to seek shelter in a building. It has to be fully enclosed, grounded, and have electrical and plumbing. Boats aren’t really safe at all, but if you have to ride it out in one, it should be in a cabin without touching electronics or the walls. Cars are pretty safe, but not as good as proper buildings, and again, don’t touch metal frameworks.

If you are caught in a lightning storm on the beach and can’t get to an enclosed building or car, don’t just run to a partially enclosed picnic table or similar structure. Instead, stay away from the tallest objects (lifeguard stands, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or bleachers), standing pools of water, and open areas.

You can monitor thunderstorms and severe weather forecasts online at www.spc.noaa.gov . For more information about lightning safety, a good site is www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov .

Tech and Harvey

As Beach Patrol Supervisor Austin Kirwin navigated his jet ski to the side of the highway to drop off another group of rescued people, his partner helped them dismount the rescue sled attached to the ski and walked them to shore. Meanwhile, Austin pulled out his phone in its waterproof case and squinted through the rain and wind as he checked his messages. He had several new addresses that had been sent to him by someone who was combing social media platforms looking for people stranded in the Dickinson area. He chose one and directed the other three Beach Patrol rescue crews to other addresses.

It’s amazing what a role technology played during Harvey in comparison to just a few years earlier with Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Ike. In Austin’s case, while power was down in many of the areas where people were stranded, they still had cell service and a charge on their phone. While waiting for rescue on roofs, in attics, or in the second stories of houses, many people were actively communicating via social media, text, and by making calls. While our emergency management structures were getting a handle on the immense scope of the problem, some of our more tech savvy responders were getting information through other methods. Later, when we were getting addresses directly though emergency management the process was much more efficient. But during the early stages, new technology was pretty useful.

There’s a web based program that emergency management centers use to coordinate aid and requests for aid now. If you are leading a city, county, or emergency response group you can request what you need via this program. It will be assessed and compared to other groups offering all kinds of aid. There was also an app created during Harvey to coordinate first responders in Houston. And there are several apps you can go to for requesting everything from donations of clothing or household items to volunteers who are willing to come help you rip the sheetrock out of your walls.

My crew used cell phones more than their radios to keep track of each other by sending maps with pins in them to indicate an address they need to evacuate people from to showing each other what their location is.  I was pretty impressed with my team. Most are young and tech savvy and did an amazing job of combining their grasp of newer technology with a strong base of rescue skills. But even as this played out a little voice in my head was saying not to become dependent on this. One thing those who have gone through a few disasters learns is that each crisis is very different and you can’t count on anything. Just because cell phones worked during Harvey doesn’t mean that we can count on that for the next one.

Modern responders are using new tools and technology to the best advantage, but should remain flexible and build redundant systems into any preparation or response.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.