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Easter Weekend

We’re already to Easter, which for many is the real kickoff for beach time.

We know its Easter because John’s Beach Service is about to roll out hundreds of umbrella and chair set ups for the first time of the year at Stewart Beach. Max Wilson, with help from his brother, Walter, has run this business for decades and has been gradually transferring it to his nephew, Matt Wilson. This is an old style, first class business, and they do it well. They don’t set up before Easter because for such a large operation the weather is too fickle. If 20 canvas get wet its not such a big deal to lay them out to dry. But for John’s Beach service, finding a time and place to lay out 3-500 umbrellas is another story. When you’ve been in business for 50 years you learn to treat customers right, so they come back year after year. So, we’ve come to see the umbrellas up at Stewart beach as the official start to busy beach time.

Easter Weekend is usually a huge holiday, sometimes it’s the equivalent of Labor Day Weekend. But unlike Labor Day, we have additional challenges like higher wind and waves, colder water, and higher “Spring Tides”. So be sure and pick an area near a lifeguard and stay far away from any structures like groins and piers. Also be alert for both hypothermia in the water and heat exhaustion on the land. Don’t swim at the ends of the island, remember drinking and swimming is a bad combination, and don’t swim alone. We’ve got all 300 of our signs up on the beach with additional info on each tower, so be sure and look around for danger warnings. Of course, talk to the guard if in doubt.

Helping us out with be our 14 new “Wave Watchers”, who graduated from their academy a week ago. After 20 hours of content related to Beach Patrol operations, Wave Watcher procedures, currents and structures, search and recovery, and common marine life injuries, they’re loaded with information. And that doesn’t count the certifications they all earned as Certified Tourism Ambassadors and CPR/AED. You’ll spot them with their signature navy blue shirts, ID tags, bush hats, and whistles up and down the beach. Our seasoned Wave Watchers have already been out there giving us extra eyes, moving swimmers, treating minor first aids, and letting people know what the hazards are. Now we’ll double the number of WW force multipliers out there keeping us informed and safe.

There is a vote coming up to renew the parking fees on the seawall, so be sure and get out there to vote your conscious. The city has done a good job of making sure that money is set aside to maintain the beach amenities. For my part, I’ve been impressed how the improvements on the seawall look, and I’m hoping we can renew that vote in order to maintain all the good things happening on the beach front and keep the momentum going.

Sea of Swimmers

The sea of swimmers looks like mullet swimming all over each other. The start of the triathlon is hard to guard as waves of over 100 swimmers start every 5 minutes. Beach Patrol lifeguards, Police, Sheriff Deputies, along with other groups in kayaks, Jetskis, and boats watch over the masses, trying to pick out the ones that are tired, get cramps, panic, or have sudden medical issues during the swim. Some 70 or 80 require minor assistance and a handful are brought quickly to shore to be checked out by EMS. The Galveston Police dive team is suited up and ready, just in case.

This Sunday, April 7th is the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 Texas. The event is based at the perfect venue for a triathlon, Moody Gardens. Triathletes typically come with a full entourage of family and friends. They usually have some degree of disposable income and like to visit local attractions before and after the race. Most importantly, they like the logistics to be simple. I remember many times coming into a new town for a race and, on top of the normal pre race jitters, having to navigate large cities to find the swim area, bike and run course, and different transition areas. At Moody Gardens its one stop shopping. On Galveston Island, it’s easy to find your way around, find parking, and enjoy all that our amazing venue has to offer.

We’re looking at around 3,000 athletes, along with all their entourage. Sports tourism is a growing industry and triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports around.

This is a “Half Ironman”, so involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. Not for those who aren’t really trained up!

The Beach Patrol and the Police Department Marine Division’s dive team work closely to provide water security. We work a sort of zone defense strategy. Lifeguards on rescue boards are placed strategically throughout the course with Lifeguard Supervisors on Jet Skis covering zones. The Police boat protects the race from boat traffic and is ready to dive for someone if the need arises. Using a system of whistles and hand signals rescues are made and tired swimmers are removed from the water. Every racer is tracked by an identifying number and a chip. EMS, Police, and volunteer crews coordinate emergencies, aid, and logistical support through a central dispatch. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to support racers and minimize risk.

There are some inconveniences on the road parts of the race, particularly the bike. Fortunately, our Galveston Police Officers who plan and work the event are pro’s, as are the city crews who handle all the details of making the roads safe for everyone. So, it really minimizes the impact on traffic and the community.

But ultimately this is a great event for the island. When these thousands of sports tourists head home, they will spread the word. Galveston is a fantastic place to visit and has something for everyone.

Wave Watchers

The lifeguard at tower 61 was getting a little overwhelmed.  She was moving as fast as she could but the current kept moving swimmers towards the dangerous area by the rocks. She barely had time to move swimmers and get back to her tower before jumping back down. As she climbed up to her tower, she heard a whistle. She looked down and was relieved to see a man wearing a blue shirt blowing a whistle to remind swimmers to stay out of danger.

The dispatcher checked the Beach Patrol cell phone and saw that the special app had a couple of new notifications on it. One of the Wave Watchers had been on the way to fish at the San Luis Pass and noticed a bunch of people in the water. Another was riding his bike along the seawall and saw a bus full of small children in swimming gear pull up at an area without a lifeguard. The dispatcher called the area supervisors for the west end and the seawall and let them know.

On the 4th of July weekend, the frantic parents of a lost 3-year-old child ran down the beach yelling for assistance. The tower lifeguard in the area asked them what was wrong, and they said they had lost sight of their child. After a quick check on the radio the lifeguard referred them to the big tent behind the next tower, which was the designated place for the “Lost Child Detail”. When the parents approached, they found a woman in the distinctive blue “Wave Watchers” shirt sitting with a lifeguard. Both were using beach toys to play with several children, including the lost 3-year-old.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy which is free of charge. The Wave Watcher team serves as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Academy is free of charge and will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, as well as beach safety. Attendees will receive certifications in both CPR and as Certified Tourist Ambassadors.

Once through the Academy, Wave Watchers will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”. They can spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us, or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement is completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome.

We have an academy starting April 8-12 from 8-12am. We need you to join our team and our lifesaving family!

Athletes Committee

IT was a hot, humid early morning in June. Kevin Anderson looked like he was about to bust. He was sweating and red, his breath came in raspy gasps, and he was on the verge of collapse. We slowed the pace until he was able to get back to a baseline, then picked it up again.

Every Friday a few of us would do a 6-mile sand run with wind sprints. We’d run to the South Jetty, stretch and then do the sprints and recovery jogs between each of the trash cans on the beach. A long time Beach Patrol employee and athlete, Kevin had been active in lifesaving when he was younger, then barely worked enough to stay on the roster for a few years. Like many of us, after he and his wife, Alana, had children, Kevin went through a period where he gained weight and stopped working out regularly. He was working as a project manager for a large marine engineering firm by day, taking care of his kids, and playing music. There wasn’t much time for fitness.

Beach lifeguarding affects some people for the long term. Lots of our guards are really fit and are young when they work for us, but then life happens. They come back not looking as, shall we say “svelte”. But a small percentage of them turn it around. Kevin did much more than that. He started training with us on a regular basis and got really into all the Lifesaving Sport events. Having a really good swimming background, he took to it like a ….. fish to water (sorry!). He started training with me regularly on the surf ski and paddleboard, hitting the pool, running, and competing locally, regionally, and nationally. He now has a whole bunch of national medals under his belt and is the current reigning Lifesaving Sport athlete for the Beach Patrol. Oh, and did I mention he’s beating all these young athletes around here at a ripe old 40 years of age?

Kevin didn’t stop at just getting back in really good shape and excelling in sport. After deliberating for a couple of years, he decided to change his career as well. He stopped working as a project manager and applied for a full-time job with us. You will see him now out working a lifeguard tower, patrolling on a jet ski, or riding in a rescue truck. And he’s become something of our unofficial in-house Lifesaving Sport trainer.

Recently, Kevin was chosen to represent the Gulf Coast Region of the United States Lifesaving Association on a newly formed Athletes Committee. His duties will include being a conduit of information between Texas Lifeguard Sport athletes and the national Lifesaving Sport Committee and representing the interests of the athletes to the officials and organizers at a national level.

Join me in congratulating Kevin for his appointment. But also, and more importantly for the discipline and courage to make this significant life change, and the choice to spend his considerable talents protecting Galveston’s beach population!

Hypothermia

In last week’s column I mentioned the danger of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver, he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may just be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia.

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases, you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water is warming up into the 60s, and soon will be comfortable for swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Spring Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And say hi to the lifeguards while out there!

Do You Have What It Takes?

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

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

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

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

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

Lifeguards for Life

With its tin roof the small house looked unassuming. It was precariously perched on the side of a steep hill with other houses. Vegetables grew in small plots interspaced with clothing lines and chickens clucked, scratched and pecked. I paid the Taxista and walked up the manicured path to the door. As I raised my hand to knock, the door sprang open and Juan limped over to me and grabbed me in a giant bear hug. Juan’s sister came up behind him and pulled me inside. Rosa can’t see very well, and Juan has a hard time hearing, but we somehow managed a lively conversation. Rosa served tacos that were so spicy that Juan and I were pouring sweat. After 20 years of working with the guards in Veracruz, Mexico, this had become our tradition, and is one of the things I look forward to the most each time I visit. Juan was the first lifeguard I met back then and was, at the time, already a veteran. Now he still works the beach, and despite a bad leg and being almost deaf, he still mentors the youngsters, swims like a fish, makes several rescues, and prevents thousands of drownings each year.

The snow came down so hard we could hardly make out the door of the house on the side of the mountain in Utah, just a few miles from one of the least publicized and best ski areas in the country. As we stepped out into the bone chilling cold, we were ushered in. Bob Burnside, now in his upper 80’s, led our small group in to be greeted by an assortment of working and retired lifeguards from various beaches. Bob dove into a fierce political discussion with another octogenarian that escalated almost to blows as the night wore on. Apparently, this is a regular thing according to the other lifeguards. Bob is the first president and current unofficial spiritual guide for those of us who are involved with the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). He skis every day and seems to have attracted a small, hard core group of surfers and lifeguards to switch their focus from riding waves and saving lives to carving frozen water. But every conversation eventually comes around to their years and years of saving lives or current issues in the lifesaving community.

The United States Lifesaving Association is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. The USLA works 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. Our motto is “Lifeguards for Life”.

I don’t think I fully understood the meaning of the motto until recently. Whether you’re with a group of guards in houses in Veracruz or Utah, a surf club in Australia, or anywhere else lifeguards gather, there is a common understanding of the unique risks, sacrifices, joys, and challenges open water guards experience and face. And wherever you are you have family and a shared mission.

Lifeguards for Life

Joe Max Taylor

The annual “Disco Dog Party” was in full swing when one of the guards paddled up on a board to the tip of the south jetty wearing full disco regalia. Hot dogs were cooking, music was playing, and lifeguards were dancing to KC. The guard said he’d paddled up in the dark to a boat that was shark fishing and asked if they’d seen a “disco party anywhere out here”. What we didn’t know is that the shark fisherman was also a state senator and that he was immediately on the marine band radio calling the Coast Guard.

I found myself in Sheriff Joe Max Taylor’s office first thing Monday morning being dissected by those steely blue eyes. 30 years later this seems pretty funny, but at the time I was absolutely terrified. I don’t think I could have put three words together in a coherent fashion but fortunately I didn’t have to.

“Son, did you have a good time last night?” He said somewhere between annoyed and amused. “Y-Yessir”, I croaked. “Gunna happen again?” “No sir.” “Get out of here and go save someone then.” he said with a hint of a smile. I didn’t know he even knew who I was, but later I realized he knew I was young and dumb and making some less than perfect choices. But he also knew I had good water skills, worked hard, and was always willing to step up when needed. He knew everything about everyone but seldom let on. He was brilliant and shrewd and would support his “family” with all his considerable power.

A few years later I sat in a meeting with he and Vic Maceo, the head of the Beach Patrol at the time. Vic was a Major and I was a Lieutenant with the County but were under contract to manage the Beach Patrol. Beach Patrol was still under the Sheriff Office direction, although it was funded by the Park Board using primarily hotel tax money. We were in the budget process and Beach Patrol was about to take a big hit. Joe Max stood up at the beginning of the meeting and essentially went around the board table talking about each person, telling anecdotes. He didn’t say anything bad about anyone, nor do I remember him talking directly about the money grab, but he did say a couple of things about how good a job we did on the beach and how important our department was. We walked out of there with an intact budget and a sweaty board of directors thanks to his mere presence supporting us in that meeting.

I learned much about politics, true power, having vision, real leadership, and supporting extended “family” from him.

Joe Max Taylor was a visionary who quickly saw how beneficial incorporating the Beach Patrol into the Sheriff Office would be for both sides. He was an enormous part of why the Beach Patrol is what it is today, and we will be eternally grateful for his support and guidance.

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.