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Night Swim 2016

Most schools are still in session for one more week, so next weekend really marks the beginning of the full summer season. And it will start with a bang, since the 30th annual American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition will be held Saturday. This year we expect over 60 teams to compete for the coveted “Golden Bucket Award”. If you’re like me and hate crowds, the insider tip is to go down Sunday morning early. We have security Saturday night which allows for an additional day to view these works of art.

Last week over 70 lifeguards participated in the 28th annual “Night Swim” followed by a complimentary meal at the Float. Not only is it the final physical challenge for the lifeguard candidates, but the whole staff jumps in with them. We rotate the person who designs the course so it’s different each year. This year was the brainchild of Supervisor Lauren Hollaway, and she was especially cruel.

It started at 27th with a run to 17th and back. We then grabbed fins, swam from 27th around the Pleasure Pier to 24th, jumped off the groin and swam back around the Pleasure Pier against the current. From there a run to 37th, where we got on rescue boards and paddled to 27th. And it didn’t stop there. After running the groin we jumped off the rocks again and swam without fins around the Pleasure Pier to 24th and made a final run back to 27th. The 2 miles of swimming, 3 miles of running, and 1 mile of paddling were made even tougher by 4 foot surf, strong current, and some serious competition. All of our guards meet a really high swimming fitness requirement, but we have some that are amazing athletes. Few compare to the two that dominated the race. John Obrien is a lifetime swimmer, triathlete, and Cross Fit instructor. Joe Cerdas ran track, is a great surfer, and is the undisputed champion of stand up paddle (SUP) racing in Texas- he hasn’t lost a race in 4 years. Both compete regularly in Lifeguard Sport, which includes swimming, running, rescue board racing, and surf ski (like a long ocean kayak).

The two went head to head for an hour and twenty minutes. John led most of the way with his superior swimming ability, until Joe used his intimate knowledge of currents to get close to him on the paddle. Finally, at the very end of the final swim, Joe squeaked by for his second victory in a row. I was pleased at 50 years of age to pull off a 4th place.  Everyone was a champion and finished the course, with the final finishers coming in after 2 1/2 hours of torture.

The great thing about finishing an event like this is that, once they get through it, the guards know to the core of their being that they can physically and mentally handle way more than they ever imagined.

They will need that confidence for what lays ahead.

 

Fin Cut and Night Swim

Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.

When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.

It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.

In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.

Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.

Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!

Pygmy Sperm Whale

Living as close to the ocean as we do we become very familiar with the flora and fauna that we see regularly. Things people come a great distance to enjoy can become commonplace if we don’t consciously strive to renew our appreciation. For some this is means merely making the time to slow down, make time, and be present. For others it means a continual learning process as we encounter new creatures and experience variations in the coastal environment.

I was personally pretty blown away last week when we got a call that a whale beached itself on the rocks at 50th street. What turned out to be a Pygmy Sperm Whale that was around 8 feet long was alive when it arrived but, unfortunately, died shortly afterwards. We were able to tie a rope around its tail and pull it off of the rocks and drag it through the water to a beach with sand on it so it could be loaded up and disposed of in a more remote area of the beach. That wasn’t too out of the norm, as we deal with bottle nosed dolphins often. And a Cetacean beaching itself makes perfect sense. After all, what air breathing mammal wants to run the risk of drowning? But the wild thing was that it’s a really pretty rare occurrence to have a whale wash up at all and I’ve never seen a Pygmy Sperm Whale in person before.

I was really surprised to see its tiny little mouth on such a big head. One of the women that we were working with from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network told me that it feeds by suction! I thought about it all day, and that night combed the internet for more information. Turns out the mouth was only one weird thing about it.

I was in the Galapagos Islands once and saw crabs that live in trees and seagulls that have infrared vision and hunt at night. I know that the environment can cause all kinds of variation, but this little guy is pretty amazing even by Darwinian standards.

The Pygmy Sperm whale can dive for up to 45 minutes and uses echolocation to find its prey, which consists to a large degree of deep water squid. Sounds like it sucks the squid up into its little mouth like a scuba diving slurp gun. It also  can navigate by sensing magnetic fields, sort of like an inner compass.

But here’s the really cool thing. According to Wikipedia, “Pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales are unique among cetaceans in using a form of “ink” to evade predation in a manner similar to squid. Both species have a sac in the lower portion of their intestinal tract that contains up to 12 L of dark reddish brown fluid, which can be ejected to confuse or discourage potential predators”. So it uses the same technique its primary food source uses to avoid predators. In this case typically sharks or killer whales.

Mass Rescue

The report of the incident starts out, “15:04 Unit 290,Supervisor Buck & Stewart, dispatched by headquarters for swimmers out to far at TWR 25.  Unit 290 rolls from 28 and sand.

15:05 Unit 290 gets on location.  From the beach we can see 5 swimmers about 50 yards off shore  …  My partner, Supervisor Stewart immediately heads into the water to check the swimmers…”

As most of you are probably aware, the rescue of five people at 26th street a couple of weeks ago received quite a bit of media attention. Our full time Lifeguard Supervisor/EMT Mary Stewart was credited with these rescues. Mary is a fantastic lifeguard, wonderful employee, and deserves every bit of this attention. The scary thing is that she almost drowned during the process, as one of the two victims she was attempting to bring to shore panicked and climbed on top of her and pushed her under water, as she tried to simultaneously fight him off and keep a small child afloat.

Not to take anything away from Mary, but there was more to the story than most of the media outlets reported. Despite Mary continually praising her co-rescuers during interviews, the public story cut that part out.

Meanwhile the report tells a more complete picture:

“Once my partner gets to the swimmers I receive the “ok” signal and return to shore and my radio to relay the “ok” signal.  Immediately after radioing everything is ok I see my partner signal for help.  15:07 I radio HQ to send back up and that I will be in the water to assist.  294 begins to roll from 18th and wall.   The guard from TWR 25,Dornak,  had brought 3 swimmers closer to shore where I met them with the rescue board.  Dornak then headed back to Supervisor Stewart to assist with the two swimmers she was bringing to shore.

15:09 Unit 294, Supervisor Garcia & Sr. Guard Letnich, arrive on scene.  Myself and my three victims are now in waist deep water, I instruct Sr.  Guard Letnich to go see if Stewart or Dornak need any more assistance.  I take my three victims to Unit 294 with Supervisor Garcia to get further checked out.”

Obviously there is quite a bit more going on. Jared Dornak stabilized the situation, brought three victims to Supervisor Dain Buck, then helped Mary bring the two she was wrestling with to shore, which may have saved her life. Dain watched everyone’s safety while still effecting three rescues himself and making sure backup was on the way so we could keep the ratio of rescuers to victims at an acceptable level.

There are layers of protection built into our system, which makes a dangerous job less so because we can provide all our guards with quick backup. These layers are there because we are provided enough resources to do lifesaving the right way. This event demonstrates clearly that we would have lost at least a couple of lives if this were not the case. And that we have many heroes in our ranks.

 

Mary’s Rescue

Last Saturday we almost lost several lives, including one of our lifeguards.

The incident started relatively harmlessly. 5 people were swimming between the Pleasure Pier and the 27th street groin. There was a spot where there was a very weak rip current. A gentle drift that pushing offshore. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But the 5 people were having a bit of difficulty returning.

The lifeguard from the nearest tower went to check. When the rescue truck made the scene they called in that no one was in distress but that Supervisor Mary Stewart was going to go in and help the guard move them closer to shore.

As they do at times, things escalated rapidly. Three of the victims, escorted by the tower guard’s made it in with minimal help. This is normal stuff. Two of them, a child and a man who went to help the group to shore, were floating on Mary’s rescue tube as she towed them to shore. It was, at this point, a simple rescue like the multitude our guards make each year.

But suddenly Mary was pulled underwater. It seems that the man started panicking. She was instantly catapulted from a situation where she was making a routine rescue, like she has done scores of times in her 11 year career as a lifeguard, to a struggle for her very life and the life of the two people she was trying to help.

As she tried to hold the child up she grappled with the man. There were times she felt like she’d have to make the choice between letting go of the child to try and save herself, or giving up and going down. All three lives hung in the balance.

In Mary’s words, “…someone’s life was slipping from the palm of my hand, as I struggled to maintain mine. The feeling of being someone’s only hope to live, while trying to hold onto your [own life] at the same time is indescribable. In an instance your whole life flashes before your eyes; every struggle, every tear, every laugh, every smile. You don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”

In the end, her grit, training, fitness level, and fellow lifeguards gave this near tragedy a happy ending. Everyone made it to shore and lived to tell.

Every lifeguard who works enough time faces what Mary faced. A moment when you realize that fitness, training, and good intentions only get you so far. You have to dig deep beyond the physical part of you and draw strength from…somewhere else. And then, after passing though the crucible, you realize what you are and what you are actually capable of.

Mary later wrote, “For those of you fighting unbearable battles or drowning in despair- refuse to give up, refuse to sink… Your real hero is right there holding on to your…hand. And if you hold on long enough , you may just get the chance to be [a hero yourself.”

Storm Scare

A pop up storm can cause us to walk a tightrope and really highlights the interdependence of the groups that care for and protect our beaches.

 

History shows us that a tide of more than 3.5 feet above average puts our lifeguard towers at risk, which potentially could cost several hundred thousand dollars. It’s also been demonstrated that if we wait too long to get down there and move the towers, we can reach the point of no return where the equipment to move them can’t get down there, and high water, strong winds and sometimes lightning can put our crews at undue risk. The problem is that the farther we are out from the weather event the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 

This week really demonstrated how this works and how much we rely on our partners. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service predicted terrible weather headed our way. By terrible, we’re talking about up to 10 inches of rain in some areas, potential lightning, hail, and tornados, and tidal surge coupled with 30 mph winds and offshore waves of up to 15 feet. Bad. But the tides were only predicted to be around 3 or 3 ½ feet, which under “normal” circumstances wouldn’t warrant all the trouble, expense, and potential damage that moving all 31 towers off of the beach would incur.

 

The NWS office put out updates every few hours and we, as well as the other public safety agencies and city staff, had been following them closely. Our Emergency Management Office kept checking to make sure we all had the latest info as well. I can’t really adequately explain how much the NWS crew does for us and all the other groups they work with including the general public. One example is that one of the guys up there who is also a friend sent me a text late Monday evening saying that the projected offshore wave height had increased and that there was a good chance that on the beach the waves and wind could push that maximum tidal height up even more and could potentially cause the water to reach the base of the seawall. Talk about a hot tip!

 

So, at 10:30 at night I called Jesse Ojeda, who heads up the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board. Without hesitation his answer was, “We’ll start at 5am”. Wow! By the time I checked with him at 6:30 they’d already gotten half of them up to the top of the seawall where they’d be safe. And since the wind wasn’t going to blow harder than about 30mph we didn’t have to truck them all the way to another part of the island.

 

Good to have friends!

 

Stay tuned because lifeguard tryouts and spring break start tomorrow. Time to start the beach season!

Veracruz Training Wrap-up

At 7:15 our little band stood in the lobby of the Hotel Louis rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and filing into the van of the “Proteccion Civil” (Mexican equivalent of Emergency Operations). By 7:45 we were in the auditorium provided to us as a classroom for the 60 students of the lifeguard academy.

It was the last full day in Veracruz. The culmination of 60 hours of training over a 6 day period. We were tired to the bone after all the teaching and mandatory extracurricular activities that were required of us by Mexican customs and the formalities required of a delegation from Veracruz’s sister city.

From the written test we went directly to the beach and the large group was quickly divided into a subset of 4. Smaller groups of around 15 participated in 4 separate scenarios on the beach. Two were simulated medical emergencies that were designed to happen on the shoreline and the other two were water emergencies, which were complicated by the 8 foot surf. By 11:30, thanks to the help from some additional volunteers, we’d run the scenarios and done a debriefing to talk about the good and bad responses to the simulated emergencies. After the daily mandatory group photo shots and autograph sessions protocol dictated, we ate a hasty meal that our host brought us. Then we and reunited with a couple of members of our group who were assigned the arduous task of grading the 60 exams and putting the scores in the course matrix alongside the swim, run, attendance, teamwork, and first aid/CPR course columns. To receive certification from the International Lifesaving Federation- Americas Region they had to pass all of the columns. 26 ended up passing and the others received an acknowledgement of participation in the course, and in some cases a certification in first aid and CPR.

The completion ceremony filled the municipal hall of Veracruz and there were high ranking officials present from the mayor to an admiral in the Navy to the heads of both tourism and civil protection for the state. The mayor is the son of the mayor that was there when Galveston and Veracruz formed their sister city relationship, and that relationship is clearly very important to the entire city. We were treated like royalty by everyone we came into contact with.

We actually got two glorious hours off to change, rest and prepare for the big celebration. At the celebration we distributed second had buoys, whistles, fins, lifeguard competition shirts, Galveston stickers and other things we brought to donate. Nothing goes to waste down there.

Hopefully the training will come in handy to the 14 groups from all over the state in the upcoming couple of weeks. Carnival starts today and they expect around 2 million people to visit the city alone in the next week. Semana Santa (Easter) follows shortly after and it just as big. They’ll definitely have their hands full.

Our crew returned Sunday exhausted but with renewed commitment. Our own challenges start shortly.

Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.

Winter Is Here

Water temperature in the 50’s is a game changer. Even our hard core surfers don’t last long with the 3 millimeter wetsuits most Texans wear, and the only swimmers we encounter seem to be Russian or Canadian.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and got to spend time with people they care about. This is always a great time to reflect on things we’re grateful for. I personally feel really appreciative of the hard work our staff did this season, the support of all the groups we work with and the community of Galveston, and the chance to slow down for a bit, recharge the batteries, and fill in some details that we couldn’t get to during the busy season.

We’re almost at the end of our patrol season with this weekend being the last where we’re proactively out there checking the beaches for a while. Most of our crew has been working hard refurbishing our 28 lifeguard towers while alternating the days they take a patrol shift. They’ve also been doing one last pass of replacement and repair of the 300 or so signs we maintain along 33 miles of beachfront. But starting December 1st everyone will focus on finishing the towers up so they can spend the remaining time until everyone is able to work on individual projects.

Each of our full time supervisors has an area of responsibility that they take full charge of. There is a window of time from late December until March 1st when they have time to get the bulk of this work done. Some of the areas are board and craft repair/maintenance, website upgrades, virtual lifeguard museum, recruiting/water safety video projects, policy and procedure manual updates, training material preparation, and ordering supplies and equipment.

One major change we are trying to make is to move to an almost completely paperless system. We recently purchased computers for each vehicle so reports can be done while overseeing a zone of responsibility. We’re getting close to purchasing an electronic records management system for storage and easy retrieval of reports and other documents. My hope is that by 2016 we can operate with 90% digital files and documents.

There’s an upcoming event that I wanted to mention. We’ll follow up with more details, but the annual public safety Christmas parade is scheduled for Saturday, December 13th in the morning. This event has been growing and has been a fun X-mas holiday kick off. It’s been a nice way for first responders from different agencies to show our community how appreciative we are for the support we receive. Also it’s an opportunity for the community to show support for everything these hard working public safety organizations’ men and women do.

From all of us at the Galveston Beach Patrol we hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season. Hopefully you’ll have the time and opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the things and people that are most important to you.

Drowning Prevention for the City of Galveston

Swimming Safety- English

Swimming Safety- Spanish

 

For a downloadable version of the brochure, click here.