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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.

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.

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.

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

 

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer

Busy Summer Time

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. As I write this, I’m just back in from responding to an impressive 3 person rescue by Captain Pryor and Lifeguard Martinez at 39th street. Looks like one of two kids may have stepped off a sandbar into deeper water and his dad and sister tried to help him and they ended up all having trouble. Fortunately, Lifeguard Martinez showed up just in time for his shift and Captain Pryor was right there with his response. And this is just one of many similar incidents that have happened recently. I for one will be really happy when we get into a calmer water pattern as we get into the summer season.

We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and on holidays, County Emergency Response Team we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.

We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 14th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented 5th academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the UTMB Fieldhouse pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. And don’t forget our lifeguards just got a pay bump, so starting pay will be $14 an hour plus potential increases for being bilingual or having an EMT. Join our family!

Very soon we’ll start seeing an increase in storms that threaten the gulf. This is a good time for a reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. Good excuse for a mini vacation.

Hope to see you on the beach!

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

Rescue

A 5-year-old boy got caught in a rip current on the East side of 29th Street last Saturday and was pulled out to the end of the groin. There was no lifeguard on duty to stop him before he got into trouble and move him farther from the rocks and closer to shore. He began to struggle and started to go under.

A bystander ran to the nearest staffed tower at 27th street. Supervisor Michael Lucero was on duty and reacted immediately by calling in to our dispatch asking for assistance and by running to 29th and into the water.

Both for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and for the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) the number one safety tip is “Swim Near a Lifeguard”. As a description why USLA thinks this is so important they say “USLA statistics over a 10-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost 5 times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards. USLA has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million (.0000055%)”.

As Michael sprinted down the beach, a surfer spotted the small boy way out at the end of the groin. He paddled to the boy, who was unconscious and face down at this point, and grabbed him with one arm and the board with the other. He couldn’t get the child to shore but he was able to support him till Michael arrived. As Michael made contact and started back to shore, one of our rescue trucks arrived. Kevin Anderson set up the oxygen kit and Jeff Mullin went to help Michael bring the boy to shore. They found the boy with no pulse and he wasn’t breathing. The trio immediately started CPR and had the boy breathing with a heartbeat by the time the fire department was on the scene. The boy was brought in the Beach Patrol truck to the seawall and passed him to EMS, who took him to the hospital for further treatment.

We know that people are safer when they swim near a guard and take additional precautions like designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, don’t swim along, and more. But the challenge is, and continues to be, that Galveston has 33 miles of beaches, over 7 million tourists annually, a warming climate, and a marked tourism increase in the Spring and Fall.  Like many other service jobs, it’s getting harder to find enough people to fill the lifeguard spots. Meanwhile, the demand is increasing both in areas needing coverage and times of year people are swimming. Spring and Fall are particularly challenging as the majority of our guards are students who only work as “seasonal employees”, which limits them to 7 months.

So, understanding our challenges in covering all the areas with swimmers and seeing how quickly tragedy can strike, you understand how important it is that you take the time to find a guarded area to swim in.

Wave Watchers Graduation

This weekend should be an interesting one. We’ve got with some real high tides and very strong onshore winds predicted for tonight. Then tomorrow a nice day is scheduled for both the normal large beach crowds we’ve been seeing plus the Slow, Low, and Bangin’ (S.L.A.B.) event that is supposed to happen. Those who work the beaches in Galveston never have to be worried about being bored in the Spring!

Last week we had a great experience with our Wave Watcher Academy. As that group continues to grow each year, I’m continually impressed with what a great bunch they are. And it’s comforting to know that as demands on the city’s designated lifeguard service continue to grow, the Wave Watchers are able to fill in some of the gaps. I’m sure you’ve seen them in their blue and yellow shirts on the beachfront walking, bike riding, fishing, and surfing as they keep a trained eye out for developing problems.

The Academy included information about Beach Patrol, rip currents and other environmental hazards, local city ordinances and beach rules, and how to support the efforts of the lifeguards and other public safety groups. The Park Board provided on on-line certification as a “Tourist Ambassador”, and we certified them in CPR. We went through a bunch of different scenarios as varied as drownings, lost children, stranded dolphins and turtles, criminal activities, fires, people swimming in areas that could potentially be dangerous, etc. We talked about who to contact for what, whether it’s the Beach Patrol number, the Wave Watcher thread on an app, 911, the police non-emergency number, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, or Ghost Busters. One really cool thing was many of the Wave Watchers who have been around came to a lot of the training to offer advice, welcome the new members, and to sharpen their skills. The final day, they took a field trip and rode the island looking at water safety hot spots. They practiced throwing ring buoys to a “victim” lifeguard. We finished up with a graduation event at a local restaurant.

Many of our Wave Watchers are retirees who have a flexible enough schedule to go through the training on weekday mornings, which is the easiest time for us to provide instructors, since most of us are out on the beach working in the afternoons and evenings. Several people have suggested that we figure out something for people who are interested in joining the program, but who work during the day. Covid has been an awful thing, but its taught us a lot of ways to work and train in non-traditional ways. So, we’re looking at a Wave Watcher academy that is mostly online and which can be done at your own pace and time. We can pre-record presentations and offer online mini-courses. Then we’d just schedule some time on a weekend to practice skills and to visit the hot spots. Stay tuned if you’d be interested in this option.

See you on the beach!

OTB – Wave Watchers

The Beach Patrol has been fortunate for many, many years to have great support from the community and county. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that this is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are embedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, our School Outreach Program that provides instruction to over 30,000 children per year, and more. One program that we’re particularly excited about and hope that many of you will participate in is the “Wave Watcher Program”.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. This year the academy will be held April 12-16 from 8am to noon.

The course will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, general beach safety, first aid and CPR specially tailored to the beach environment, tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training), municipal ordinances related to the beach and waterfront, and Wave Watcher operations. On the final day, we’ll do a site by a site visit of “hot spots” for water safety and discuss in detail how our Wave Watchers can integrate into Beach Patrol operations. The course will culminate in a lunch with experienced Wave Watchers and Beach Patrol staff.

Once through the academy Wave Watchers will be able to volunteer for various duties if they desire. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us. The class will cap at 50 and will be first come first serve. Classes will be held at the Beach Patrol Headquarters on the top floor of the Stewart Beach Pavilion. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome. There will be options for virtual learning, in person learning, or a hybrid. Wave Watchers and Wave Watcher candidates will observe the same social distancing and mask requirements that Beach Patrol employees follow when they are in class or on patrols while wearing their Wave Watcher uniform.

To register or get more info email us at gibpadmin@galvestonparkboard.org

We hope you will join our team and family for a fun way to support a great cause!