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Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work 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.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that  there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.

Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.

Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.

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.

Year-round Beach Destination

This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.  

One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.  

These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.  

We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc. 

New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them. 

For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.  

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.