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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

 

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

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!

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!

Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

Lifesaver

A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat. There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside, was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf, and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape. Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid 1800’s and these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen”, who were employees of the US Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master”. During the day they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat. They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk, and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off of the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pully system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews. This was very dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century the US Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations. and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association. This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect todays beachgoers.

Shoulder Season

Driving down the seawall last Monday, I spotted a couple of people right next to the rocks towards the
end of the 53rd street rock groin. They were right in the dangerous area. Thinking I only had seconds, I
flipped on the overheads and made a U turn. Once I was off the wall and rolling down the rocks, I hit the
airhorn and gave instructions on the PA system to come directly to shore. I assumed any second they
would step off into the hole caused by the rip current and be in serious trouble.
I spotted a bag on the groin, so assumed that they’d walked back to shore and gone around the three
signs and under the rope and flags we stretch across them as a reminder. They’d also walked by a rip
current advisory sign at the base of the steps. We maintain these at every access point along the beach,
as well as the ones at the water’s edge.
I called for backup and jumped out, grabbing my rescue tube and fins, then raced to the water…
For good reason, there’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the time between when our seasonal
lifeguards end their 7-month work period and when it is cold enough to prohibit swimming. We’ve had
three drowning fatalities that happened just after the tower guard season ended. Once it’s cold we can
be pretty effective in preventing drowning fatalities from mobile patrols. During the season we have
guards covering about 9 miles of beach, making proactive preventative actions throughout the day. But
on a busy weekend with guards we make several thousand preventative actions because the guards are
right there on the spot. In the trucks, if we really work, it may be a few hundred. The right weather,
crowd, and water conditions can be a real issue without guards.
This window has become more and more of an issue as: 1. The Houston area population increases,
resulting in a corresponding increase in visitors here in Galveston, 2. The weather seems to stay warm
later into the year, and 3. We add on to our beaches and market ourselves in the fall and spring as a
tourist destination This year, due to the limitations on recreation imposed by Covid, we saw a marked
bump on top of this trend of increased beach use more of the year.
Many coastal communities have faced this issue as tourism expanded. Many worked out a hybrid
system that involved a lifeguard service that was not “seasonal” in nature. We’re exploring options. I’m
sure funding will be an issue if we find something appropriate for Galveston, and that won’t involve the
city’s general fund or property tax dollars. But ultimately and eventually we have to find a way to ensure
our visitors’ safety.
As for the two people we left hanging in the water, they avoided the hole. They got back safely with just
a scare and a story to take home. And hopefully they’ll read the signs and notice the flags next time.

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!