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Spring Break

Mardi Gras is the official kick off of the tourist season, but Spring break is definitely the sign that the beach season is underway.

We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow. There is information on our website. We will have the first annual Lifeguard Academy running during Spring Break. We also have many of our returning seasonal employees coming back to requalify and start working, so there will be tower guards out from here on. We’ve scheduled a full complement of rescue trucks on patrol covering much of the island as well as continuing the on-call service we provide year-round. All the other emergency service groups are similarly prepared.

But even with all those extra layers of protection, you and your family’s safety rests primarily in your hands. So please get everyone you know to swim near a lifeguard and stay far from the rock groins. Tell them not to swim at the ends of the island, don’t drink and swim or drive, enter the water with their kids, pay attention to signs and flags, don’t swim alone, and don’t dive in headfirst. And remind them to stay hydrated and protect themselves from the sun.

The three areas you should be especially aware of when it comes to safety over Spring Break are rip currents, the danger of hypothermia, and the ends of the island:

Rip Currents are narrow currents that pull away from shore. Typically, here they occur near the rock groins and piers and don’t go much past those structures. They pull out but not under. They pull sand with them so the areas near these structures can be deep. It can be dangerous for most people to swim in that area so we have signs warning people away and post our lifeguard towers in those areas to the guards can help remind swimmers to stay far from the area. If for some reason you are caught in one, you should relax and float and don’t try to fight or swim against the current. If you can swim well, try swimming out of the current by swimming parallel to the shore one way or the other. If you see someone in the rip, don’t go in after them. Instead throw a line or float, like the ones in the rescue boxes on each groin.

Another big danger right now is that the water is VERY cold. You don’t want to stay in long before coming to shore and warming up. If you feel sluggish and weak, or start shivering, leave the water immediately and get warm.

The third thing you really want to watch for is on both ends of the island. The tidal flow bottlenecks at both the ship channel and the San Luis Pass. It’d dangerous to swim or wade in either place.

All that said, this is definitely the time to get out and enjoy some nice beach time. If you take a few reasonable precautions it will be worth the effort.

And say hi to the lifeguards while out there!

Do You Have What It Takes?

At 7am in the morning a group of swimmers stand near the pool getting a briefing. In groups of 10 they enter their assigned lanes and swim 10 laps, which is 500 meters. About half of them make it under the required time. These are interviewed and take a drug test. Those that make it through all three phases qualify for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol Lifeguard Academy.

When I started as a lifeguard back in 1983, there was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work. We’ve come a long way since then and now have a comprehensive training course that is over 90 hours long. And we pay those who qualify to attend!

Next Saturday, March 9th, is the first of two tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. We will have an academy over Spring Break and another in May. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. They are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, Gulf Coast ecology and marine life, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits, we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members, who are all medical and lifesaving instructors, there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when they complete the training.

So, for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I tried out all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they prevented people from getting hurt or worse. Not many people have the privilege of reuniting lost family members or treating people who are hurt. Not many people can say that they saved a life as part of their job.

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

Even though we train our lifeguards very thoroughly, there’s no substitute for experience. Even guards who have been with us for a number of years can, at times, make dangerous mistakes without the safety net of more experienced guards around them. We had an incident earlier this week that was a wake-up call to how the dangerous combination of winter conditions and lack of experience can potentially be catastrophic.

A young woman walked into the water near the Pleasure Pier carrying a surfboard that she’d rented from a local surf shop. It was very cold, and the wind was blasting off shore. She paddled out and was quickly carried a distance from shore, where it got choppy enough to where she couldn’t paddle back in. Someone called 911 fortunately, so we were in the area quickly, as were other first responders. With these types of conditions, it can be really hard to spot someone because even though it looks calm close to shore, the chop can hide them once there farther from the shoreline. It took us a long time to locate her with binoculars, but we finally spotted her way, way out near 10th street. While one vehicle watched from shore another couple of guards launched a jet ski and headed in her direction. Even so it was a process. The waves blocked the view, so our rescuers had to follow radioed instructions until there were close enough to see her. By the time they found her, she was a couple of miles off shore and it was about half an hour before dark.

If this young woman hadn’t been found before dark, this could have been a whole different thing. Even wearing a wetsuit its doubtful that she could have survived the night once hypothermia set in. But fortunately, our crew got her back to shore where EMS checked her out. She was fine.

But it didn’t end there. Our ski crew felt bad because they were able to get her board almost to shore but as they were taking care of her and other equipment the board blew back offshore. So, they went down the beach in a rescue truck looking for the board, which they found floating only about 50 yards from shore. Even though it was almost dark they decided that one would paddle out on a rescue board and grab her board till the other got out there swimming. Then they each would paddle in. It didn’t go as planned.

A similar thing happened. The loose board was moving too fast to catch, and at one point our guards got separated in the twilight. Fortunately, one of our experienced supervisors, Nikki Harclerode, realized we hadn’t heard from them for awhile and started a search. We found the vehicle and had two jet skis on the way to find them before dark set in. For the record, they made it out without help, but I’m glad our staff was ready if things went south.

It was an interesting debriefing, but I doubt we’ll make this mistake again.

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.

Water Safety

Before you get to beach safety, there are a number of precautions that should be in effect. They are like the stepping stones you take before you even get to the point where you would swim in the surf. Water Safety USA is a national group composed of 14 of the major players involved in water safety and drowning prevention. Some of the groups involved include the Center for Disease Control, Corps of Engineers, YMCA, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, National Swimming Foundation, American Pediatric Society, Coast Guard, etc. I sit on this group as a representative of the open water lifeguards, the United States Lifesaving Association. 

With Water Safety USA one of the main things we’ve been working to achieve is common ground for water safety messaging. So we’ve been working towards coming up with shared messages that we all have in common. However, it’s not enough to give the same message different ways. We, as much as possible, are trying to use the same wording for messages we share so as not to confuse the public. One of the hard things about public water safety messaging in the USA is that there are so many groups putting out different messages. Sometimes it conflicts and sometimes the message is the same but we say it in such a different way that it’s confusing. We’ve so far agreed on a message about learning to swim, wearing lifejackets, and designating a “water watcher”. Learning to swim is really about swimming to survive, not about competitive swimming. But, as they say, swimming is the only sport that will save your life, so the focus is on getting to safety. Wearing lifejackets when boating or when in or around the water for non-swimmers and children is pretty obvious, but it also involves wearing the right kind of lifejacket. The wrong kind of lifejacket can float you face down, so that’s not too useful for non-swimmers or unconscious people. A water watcher is a term used for a person designated to have the sole responsibility of focusing on the people in the water. An example is if there is a pool party, one adult is always keeping an eye on the kids who are swimming. The adults could trade out but someone is always assigned to do that and just that. Talking, playing on the phone, or doing anything that could distract is not OK. 

All of these apply to going to the beach as well, but then you additionally would add things like swimming near a lifeguard and avoiding rip currents, which in our case here in Galveston typically mean not swimming near rock groins or piers.  

The plan for Water Safety USA is to continue looking for common themes, but we’re starting another, larger project as well. We’re starting work on a national water safety plan. Many of the developed nations have one, so there are plenty of resources out there. The goal is define strategies and set targets to reduce the amount of drownings we see in our country each year.

Season Recap

Fortunately, we are now in the position to run lifeguard patrols throughout the year. As the temperature cools, we’ll drive the entire beach front and, in addition to our lifesaving responsibilities, be able to devote attention to things like driving in prohibited areas, glass and alcohol enforcement, leash law enforcement, driving in sand dunes, and lots of other beach related issues. Hopefully this will take a little off the burden placed on the Galveston Police Department. Having a rescue truck out there already on patrol will also greatly increase our response time to water and medical emergencies in and around Galveston water.

Other than that we use the “slower” months to concentrate on rebuilding lifeguard towers and repairing/replacing needed signage of the 600 or so signs we maintain all over the island. We also use that slower time for the higher levels of training required of our full-time staff. For example, our new staff members are going to a certification course for “Swift Water Technician” this week and will be taking the Certified Tourism Ambassador course later this month. Additionally, we revise and improve training and administrative materials and try to burn off a bit of that vacation time that is hard to use during the busiest 9 months of the year.

Looking back over the past season, it was a tough one. Very large crowds and an extraordinary amount of rough water days kept us on our toes and sent some of our stats thought the roof. We seemed to be running at breakneck speed all season long and didn’t even get that late summer flat water that gives us some relief.

The big number that shows how busy we were is 175,080 preventative actions. In recent years we’ve traditionally hit somewhere just over 100,000. This year is the highest number we’ve ever recorded. This category measures how many times we advised people about or moved them from dangerous areas. It encompasses everything from the lifeguard swimming out and staying next to someone until they get to shore, to moving groups of people away from rocks on the loudspeaker in the trucks. It doesn’t include times we physically touch someone to bring them to shore, which is considered a rescue. We made 93 rescues this year which includes both rescues of swimmers and people who are boating. If we’re doing a good job of prevention that number will stay low, like it is this year.

Another big success was that we hit around 25,000 water safety talk contacts. This can be our school outreach program, or groups that show up on the beach that we intercept and give a safety talk.

We also made 582 medical responses and 627 enforcements. We often serve to filter out calls for EMS, Police, and Fire by handling minor things on site, so they don’t have to respond.

Finally, we reunited 179 lost children with parents, gave a few thousand tourists information about Galveston, provided 62 people help with vehicles, and a whole lot more.

Wet Suit Season

Very soon we’ll see some real temperature shifts and we’ll be looking at much colder water conditions. Some people will continue their beach activities as usual, and with increasing beach use in the off season our staff must be prepared. Starting next week our year-round staff is required to do at least one long training session in the beach per week. That way they stay familiar with how much wet suit to wear when going into the water for an extended time. Their bodies need to be adapted to cold water immersion and they need to know what to wear for which temperature ranges, since Texas water temperatures fluctuate quite a bit during the winter months.

A winter water rescue is usually a big deal. Water conducts heat away from the body way faster than air does. Rescuers are not immune to succumbing to the same conditions as the victims if they’re not prepared properly. And our lifeguards don’t have the backup that they do in the summer, often working alone at night in extreme conditions. A much higher level of both fitness and preparation are required.

Locally, water rescues are made either by other mariners or by a combination of agencies that participate in the Galveston Marine Response Group. These groups are generally well prepared, but occasionally even professionals who work in all kinds of conditions can overlook something critical. I remember a personal water craft rescue crew heading out for what seemed to be a simple rescue about 300 yards from shore on a warm day without taking the time to put on wet suits. The rescue got more complicated and took much longer. Even though the day was mild, the water temperature was very cold. There was a happy ending, but it was a serious lesson learned for a couple of our staff members.

Rescuers are not the only ones who need to be prepared before getting in or on the water in the winter. The number one mistake people make is not preparing properly for the temperature. Hypothermia, which is lowering of the core body temperature, sets in quickly. Mild symptoms include disorientation, shivering, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. The problem is that usually people get into trouble before they realize they are hypothermic and then can’t think themselves out of the situation. Some examples of how this typically plays out are the surfer that doesn’t wear the appropriate wet suit for the water temperature, kayakers who don’t wear any type of wet suit because they don’t “plan on getting wet”, or swimmers who aren’t familiar with how fast they can be affected. Something as simple as returning to shore and warming up in a vehicle doesn’t occur to the victim until the symptoms have progressed to the point where more serious symptoms set in and self-rescue is no longer an option.

So, as we go through the change in seasons remember to be prepared and that conditions chance rapidly this time of year. Be prepared but get out there and have fun!

Community

The past week was a tough one. Not just for the families and friends of the people who died in the ocean, but for the first responders who worked the events. It’s hard enough for us as residents to hear about tourists and locals who drown in our beach waters, but when it involved children it adds a whole new dimension.

Children drowning on the beach is not a very common occurrence, either here locally or along our nation’s beaches. We in the drowning prevention community think more of backyard pools, ditches, or rivers when we hear about drowning deaths of people under 14 or so. Internationally the vast majority of drowning deaths occur among toddlers or kids 4-5 years of age. A momentary lapse in supervision for the younger or groups of young kids playing in packs around water is the common theme.

On the beachfront our main group that drowns are boys and young men, typically 15-30. So, when we have people outside of that group it hits hard, particularly if it involves children.

Our staff went through a lot this past week. And I must hand it to them, they performed admirably under very tough circumstances. After the event itself they spent long days searching along the shoreline, or on a personal water craft. Particularly tough was the water craft as they spent hours in cold, windy, rough conditions repeatedly combing the south jetty and the groins along the seawall. And they weren’t the only ones as the Galveston Police Department, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, US Coast Guard, Galveston Fire Department, Equisearch volunteers spend hours in boats, helicopters, 4wheelers and 4WD vehicles checking every inch of the beach front, jetties, and areas around the San Luis Pass. And we still haven’t located the missing 16-year-old.

Whether or not they acknowledge it, this takes a huge emotional toll on our community, including emergency response crews. But knowing you’re not the only group looking- the only group that cares and feels bad, means a lot. There is definitely a great team here in this county from the Emergency Operation Centers, dispatchers, first responders, and groups that provide emotional support.

The Jesse Tree and our Survivor Support Team are a constant help. They were stretched to the limit with these events. And the County Critical Incident Management Team is phenomenal. I was contacted in the middle of the flurry asking if we’d like them to come and work with our staff, which I took them up on. Last year I went with Beach Patrol and Jesse Tree staff to a certification course for group and individual critical incident stress counseling that they put on, which was excellent. Sunday morning they sent a team to our office to work with our staff. It seemed to really help and was a great way for our newer staff members to realize they are part of something much larger than Beach Patrol, and that they are supported by a whole community.

Hurricane Michael

Fortunately we dodged the Hurricane Michael bullet, but that was definitely a lesson to not let our guard down.

Nevertheless we saw some pretty decent coastal flooding on Tuesday into Wednesday. My office looks out over the Stewart Beach parking lot and it was surreal to watch it when the storm surge moved in. We were still a couple of hours from high tide and over the course of 15 or 20 minutes the entire parking lot went from dry to under a foot of water. It was like watching a flash flood as rivers started forming and eventually it ended up looking like a small lake.

Fortunately the Park Board Coastal Zone Management team had already started moving our lifeguard towers for the end of the season or we could have had some damage. They also scrambled to get the hundreds of trash cans they provide off the beach and out of the flooding.

Wednesday morning I got up early and paddled out at first light with another lifeguard. It was like a dream as we got to the outside break and saw wave after wave rolling in. They were long and clean and thick since the storm pushed them across hundreds of miles of gulf before they arrived. As the sun just popped up over the horizon I dropped into a head high freight train ride. The sun burned an orange swath in the wall of the wave as the offshore wind blew neon spray back. It felt like walking through the screen into one of the surf movies that my friends and I used to watch when we were in high school.

The waves stayed throughout the day, driven by the pulse sent out from Hurricane Michael. Hundreds of surfers lined the seawall, many of whom looked like they hadn’t been in the water for a long time. This is one of the difficult things for our guards. Everyone wants to ride the storm waves! So we get really good surfers who are out there all the time, novice surfers who are just starting to paddle out past the inside break, and “Al Bundy” surfers who have not, shall we say, kept themselves in peak condition. The guards have to have a practiced eye to pick out those who shouldn’t be out there and leave the others to enjoy their passion. If we or someone else doesn’t intervene, someone gets dragged across the rock groins by a rip current or a breaking wave. Others who are not tuned into the rules may try to surf close to the fishing piers, where city ordinance says they have to maintain a 300 foot distance. So the lifeguards end up being not just rescuers, prevention specialists, and enforcers; but also councilors and conflict mediators.

And at the end of the day, when the orange swell is colored by sunset instead of sunrise, the safety crew jumped in to enjoy a piece of what everyone else got while they were working.

Fiberglass Towers

The next Beach Patrol year’s budget was just approved by the Park Board and there are a couple of very significant changes coming up.

When lightning comes in the area we walk a delicate balance between protecting the public and protecting the people who protect the public. Our policy, which meets national best practice, is to pull the lifeguards out of the towers when lightning is within 10 miles as we simultaneously warn the beachgoers. Protecting yourself from lightning when you’re on the beach means you get out of the water and off the beach. Don’t be a Ben Franklin! Seeking cover from lightning involves getting to an enclosed structure with plumbing. The second best thing is a closed vehicle. The worst thing you can do is stand under an umbrella or a tarp waiting for the danger to pass. Lots of beaches can clear the area quickly but this is Galveston and there are often hundreds or even thousands of people to clear. We do the best we can with whistles until the guard takes cover, and then we use the loudspeakers on the trucks. Sure the guards do the best they can to guard from nearby protection or vehicles, but this often means that people who choose not to heed the warnings are swimming without supervision until the lightning moves out of the area and the guards can get back in the tower.

Next year we are going to be able to put a couple of modern, esthetically appealing fiberglass towers on the beach. They will have windows and can be sealed up for inclement weather, which means we can work the guards in cold, wind, rain and worse. Shielding from the elements also greatly reduces fatigue. But the most important thing is they can be fitted with lightning rods so guards can safely protect people during times of lightning. We’ll try them out at 61st street and Stewart Beach because these are areas of high use. They are costly, but if they work out we’ll be looking at sponsorship opportunities or grant funding to see if we can figure out how to put more of them out there.

The other really great thing is we have been given the go ahead to hire four additional year round lifeguards! This will do wonders for establishing a career path and leadership pipeline. They will be our trainers as well as having specialized training such as flood rescue, diving, tourism relations, personal water craft rescue, and more. Some may go on to become peace officers. The big advantages though are that we can better address all the beach use we have during she “shoulder seasons” after and before the seasonal lifeguards are able to work. We can greatly increase how many kids we are able to provide water safety training to and hope to hit 20K. Additionally, after all these years we will be able to not only provide emergency response year round, but also patrol.

Big thanks to the Park Board and administration for helping us help beachgoers!