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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.

Bitter Sweet

We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.

It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter.  In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.

But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.

We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.

See you on the beach or in the water!

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!

Dust Devil

Lifeguard 3 Michael Lucero was working the early shift at Stewart Beach last Sunday. It was looking to be a slow day with rain in the Houston area and not many people moving around on the beachfront yet. He watched over maybe 50 people on the beach, with 10 or so in the water.

Since Lucero came to work with us I’ve always been impressed with how attentive and responsive he is. He’s always been really good about being proactive when he works in the tower. He trains hard and regularly, and he is consistently very nice and patient with our beach goers. He took the initiative to train as a dispatcher and this summer he did just as good a job coordinating 32 lifeguard towers, 7 rescue trucks, and a couple of mobile units (UTVs) simultaneously.

He did not disappoint when one of the more unexpected things possible happened Sunday. He came on the radio calmly letting his area supervisor know that a funnel cloud was developing behind his tower to the north. He then just as calmly called in that the funnel cloud had touched down in the parking lot of Stewart Beach and that he was going to move people out of the way.

We have dust devils all the time in the late summer. Usually they’re just strong enough to blow sand in people’s eyes and might uproot a couple of umbrellas. This wasn’t that.

When I got on site I could see the swirly tracks in the sand and it looked like the thing had barreled through with a diameter of about 15 yards. Witnesses reported that, as it came through the parking lot, about 10 of those heavy blue beach trashcans were swirling in the air maybe 30 feet off the ground. It blasted through the umbrella line and reportedly the umbrellas were converted to spear like projectiles while about 20 or so spun around and around.

These same witnesses all said basically the same thing. Before they knew they were in danger, Lucero first cleared the people in the water, and then moved the people on the sand out of harm’s way firmly and efficiently. When it was all over and he surmised that there were no injuries he stepped back up into his tower, called “Tower 6 back on location.” and resumed his duties of overseeing the public.

Obviously this could have gone a whole different way. But Michael was the perfect example of how we want our lifeguards to respond to emergencies. If they’re alert and proactive they can prevent injuries or worse before people even realize they’re in danger. He was quick in his thinking and in his actions without a lot of fuss. And it paid off!

As we look at the next few weeks and associated storm potential, let’s try to follow Lucero’s lead. Make sure you’re ahead of the game if the time comes to act. If officials put out warnings that recommend evacuation do so early and efficiently. And stay safe!

Wrapping up Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day weekend was interesting. Despite sketchy forecasts, each day by the afternoon we ended up with really nice conditions, some sunshine, moderate crowds, and nice water. On Monday it was especially nasty in the morning, so we put 18 guards “on call” and just worked the trucks until conditions improved. By the time the guards got out there, it was a pretty decent day and we even finished the official high season with a nice sunset.

Pretty early on Monday morning I heard on the fire channel something about a “water rescue”. Then I heard “Chief 1” saying he was going in for a rescue. Chief 1 is Fire Chief Mike Wisko. Was pretty cool to hear our Galveston Fire Chief up early on a holiday saving lives! Although the beach was quiet at the time, the action was on Broadway and the north side of the island. All the rain caused some pretty significant flooding. As calls started coming in for people stranded in the high water or EMS trying to get to patients, the Fire Department sounded pretty busy. I asked Chief Wisko if they wanted some assistance and we decided to put the Beach Patrol’s high water rescue vehicle in service at Fire Station 1 for the water calls that were deep.

Meanwhile on the beachfront there was a bit of lateral current which kept the lifeguards busy, but not overwhelmed. Although we dealt with very few emergencies, it was steady. By the end of the day Monday we’d done around 2,500 preventative actions where we moved people from, or warned them about, dangerous areas. Not bad for a weekend that looked like it would be completely rained out.

We still have until October 7th to work seasonal lifeguards, but many of them have turned their attention to school even if they will still be able help out on the weekends. After that we’ll do the best we can with those of us that work year round. We had a good crew this year and I’ll be really sorry to see them go. One consolation is that it looks like we’re a go for 4 additional year round positions, which will really take the pressure off on those busy weekends in October, November, and even December when we are struggling to stay on top of things without our tower lifeguards. The increased bodies will also enable us to increase our school water safety outreach program and to provide not only year round call, but year round patrol. Finally!

So as we move into the fall season we will start to see a series of frontal systems move through. Each of these is typically followed by beautiful, clear, dry days with small crowds. And we’ll start seeing the migratory birds moving through. This is the best beach season here, especially in the context of it being sandwiched between hot, crowded summer and cold windy winter days. So get ready to get out there and enjoy the best part of the year soon!

 

Competitions

For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time.
Beach guards routinely make rescues of people caught in large surf or rip currents who are 40-100 yards off shore. Sometimes the victims are much farther out. The guards have to swim through currents, waves, and sometimes sea life to reach the people who need them. If the victim submerges before the guard gets to them there is little or no chance of locating them in the small window of time we have to revive them before they suffer brain damage or death.
For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time. Of all the public safety groups lifeguards rely the least on equipment and the most on physical conditioning. Because every rescue is a race, every beach lifeguard is an athlete. And not only do we have to recruit athletes but we have to ensure they stay in top physical conditioning throughout the season. To do this every day they work they go through a rigorous training session that includes physical conditioning and skills practice. We also use competition. Competition is as woven throughout the lifeguard culture as reading is though education. We have local competitions weekly. We compete with other groups in Texas. And once a year a select few lifeguards and juniors compete in the United States National Lifeguard Championships. Those that qualify meet hundreds of beach guards and JGs from around the country. They share stories and ideas, learn about techniques, equipment, and how other beaches and agencies are managed. And they bring that knowledge and enthusiasm back.
This year the championships were in Virginia Beach, which is interesting in itself because of the level of support and resources the city puts into its beachfront.
Galveston did well, especially when you consider we competed against the best of the best in the entire country. Our junior guard team crushed it with Nadine Barrera- 8th in swim rescue, Noah Barrera- 8th in 2K beach run, Axel Denner- 6th in 2K beach run and 7th in beach flags, Mac Livanec- 9th in 2K beach run and 8th in beach flags, and Will Brindley getting 7th in beach flags and 8th in the rescue race. Our lifeguard team also did well, particularly in the age group categories, which start at 30 years of age. Top 10th place finishes in age group events included our resident rock star athlete Kevin Anderson, who got 4th places in both run-swim-run and in the American ironman (run-swim-paddle-row). He also got 5th in the international ironman (run-swim-paddle-surfski), and in the surf swim. And in the surf ski race he got 5th. He also got a 14th spot against the young bucks in the open surf ski race! I had a decent year as well with age group finishes of 3rd in surf ski and in American ironman, 4th in run-swim-run and in the beach run, 5th in surf swim and in international ironman, 6th in ironguard (run-swim-paddle), and 7th in the rescue board race.
All in all we did G-town proud!