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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.

Polar Plunge

Last Saturday 6 Lifeguards volunteered to come out and stand in the 54-degree water keeping watch for almost 300 people who participated in the Polar Plunge. They were freezing cold when they came out of over an hour in the water wearing only 3-millimeter wetsuits. Amazing that they chose to do that during a time they’re not working. While watching over them and the groups who were running in the water, I also noticed one of our blue “Wave Watcher” shirts on shore.

Carlos Guerra was standing on the shoreline adding an additional set of trained eyes to our layers of protection for the swimmers. Carlos and his wife Iris have been big supporters for many years. Their son, Carlos was in our Junior Lifeguard Program for many years, and now works as a lifeguard. Three years ago, when we started our “Wave Watcher” program, Carlos and Iris were among the first to sign up and have been very active volunteers.

The Beach Patrol has been fortunate for many, many years to have great support from the community and county. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are imbedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At Risk Kids Camps, and, of course, our Wave Watcher Program.

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 for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

We’ll have the Wave Watcher Academy in April. Participants will go through 20 hours of free training that includes topics such as, Beach Patrol history and operations, rip currents and general beach safety, “Code X” (witnessed drowning) procedures, victim recognition, first aid and CPR, and tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training). There is no swimming involved and everyone is welcome!

Once they graduate, they can help with our LCD (Lost Child Detail) on holidays, join us for special events and competitions, or assist with large scale emergencies. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beach goers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other emergency service groups. 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 will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew there is info on our website or they can call Tricia at 409-763-4769. Join us!

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

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

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

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

Japanese Coastline

We pulled up a little before first light and parked under an overpass. We sat in the van as the world turned slowly from black to dark grey. The guys spoke quietly in Japanese, but even without understanding the words I could detect an underlying tension and excitement to their voices. A big swell was reportedly hitting this section of the Japanese coastline and we’d driven the better part of the night from Osaka to be here. The beach wasn’t much to look at, just a thin strip of brown sand, but we could hear and feel the growling, vibrating surf with each pounding wave. As it got light enough to make out the surf, I could see we’d definitely hit the swell right on.

Onosan was the leader and not only did he have a successful surf shop, but he’d surfed professionally and had spent a couple of years on the world tour. In true Japanese fashion he had a whole possessed of disciples. As we paddled out through the big surf I stuck close to Onosan. There’s nothing like local knowledge and he seemed to know exactly how to find the rips to get out and how to time it perfectly between sets.

It was fully light by the time we made it to the outside. It was bigger than I thought and I had some serious butterfly’s. None of the disciples had made it all the way out but I spotted them on the inside break. None looked good but they were dropping in with no fear and a sore of reckless abandon. Onosan had taken a couple of big ones before I worked up my courage to drop in on a juicy 12 footer. After that , following him I started adjusting and catching good rides until I got caught in a close out and my leash broke. It was a long swim in and I had to detour around a fat rip current. But I switched out leashes and made it back out.

Suddenly I heard shouting. Several of the disciples were trying to get a swimmer to shore and he almost choked one of them who got too close. They had him on a board but that rip current was keeping them out while the waves pounded them all. A fire truck arrived and some guys in bunker gear yelled from shore. I paddled to them and we ended up swimming sideways out of the rip and eventually to shore. The guy was in bad shape and left in an ambulance. But the surfers spotted Onosan catch a nice tube on the outside and excitedly ran back into the water.

Hopefully that beach has a lifeguard service by now!

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

Even though we train our lifeguards very thoroughly, there’s no substitute for experience. Even guards who have been with us for a number of years can, at times, make dangerous mistakes without the safety net of more experienced guards around them. We had an incident earlier this week that was a wake-up call to how the dangerous combination of winter conditions and lack of experience can potentially be catastrophic.

A young woman walked into the water near the Pleasure Pier carrying a surfboard that she’d rented from a local surf shop. It was very cold, and the wind was blasting off shore. She paddled out and was quickly carried a distance from shore, where it got choppy enough to where she couldn’t paddle back in. Someone called 911 fortunately, so we were in the area quickly, as were other first responders. With these types of conditions, it can be really hard to spot someone because even though it looks calm close to shore, the chop can hide them once there farther from the shoreline. It took us a long time to locate her with binoculars, but we finally spotted her way, way out near 10th street. While one vehicle watched from shore another couple of guards launched a jet ski and headed in her direction. Even so it was a process. The waves blocked the view, so our rescuers had to follow radioed instructions until there were close enough to see her. By the time they found her, she was a couple of miles off shore and it was about half an hour before dark.

If this young woman hadn’t been found before dark, this could have been a whole different thing. Even wearing a wetsuit its doubtful that she could have survived the night once hypothermia set in. But fortunately, our crew got her back to shore where EMS checked her out. She was fine.

But it didn’t end there. Our ski crew felt bad because they were able to get her board almost to shore but as they were taking care of her and other equipment the board blew back offshore. So, they went down the beach in a rescue truck looking for the board, which they found floating only about 50 yards from shore. Even though it was almost dark they decided that one would paddle out on a rescue board and grab her board till the other got out there swimming. Then they each would paddle in. It didn’t go as planned.

A similar thing happened. The loose board was moving too fast to catch, and at one point our guards got separated in the twilight. Fortunately, one of our experienced supervisors, Nikki Harclerode, realized we hadn’t heard from them for awhile and started a search. We found the vehicle and had two jet skis on the way to find them before dark set in. For the record, they made it out without help, but I’m glad our staff was ready if things went south.

It was an interesting debriefing, but I doubt we’ll make this mistake again.

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.

“Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate and Train”

For a few months our newer full-time staff members have been getting acclimated to their new jobs. Josh Bailey is one of the 6 new hires we made in October. He’s a great addition to the staff and brings special skills to our team. 

He was originally from Nebraska, then Oklahoma, California, and eventually attended college in Missoula, Montana. In high school he lived in Apple Valley, California where he wrestled, played soccer, and bowled. He also interned in the office of Congressman Paul Cook, where he increased his administrative capability, about working with people, and learned how much you have to apply yourself to effect any type of meaningful change. During college in Montana, he worked as ski patrol at a local resort, but felt like there wasn’t enough action. He also managed a GameStop for a year and a half long stint, which he enjoyed because he was a big gamer, is a decent salesman, and likes people. He also got into lifesaving and was a swim instructor at the local YMCA. 

From there he was ready for a life change. He saw a news program about what was going on here during Hurricane Harvey. He saw lifeguards working in concert with other public safety entities to save lives and knew that was what he wanted to be part of. Since not a large percentage of our nation’s lifeguard agencies operate at that kind of level, Galveston was where he wanted to be.  

Josh showed up here for lifeguard tryouts. He impressed us with his enthusiasm. He also impressed us with a big book of all his accomplishments that he brought to the perfunctory interview that we do with all our seasonal staff. When, at the end of the season, a full-time spot opened up he was hired. We’re looking to build capacity in our organization, which includes leadership development. Josh is full of potential and we decided to hire him even though he had only been here a short time.  

Since Josh started working full-time, he feels that he’s learned a myriad of new skills. He’d never been on a rescue board, done maintenance projects, or dispatched. More importantly, he has developed a deep appreciation for Galveston and Beach Patrol’s place in it. He feels like its an “honor to work for Beach Patrol, which plays such an important part in the community”.  

I chose Josh to lead a group to explore expansion of our core mission. Part of what we’re working on here, which is part of a larger change within the Park Board, is changing our decision-making process to be more collaborative and less hierarchical. So, Josh headed up a group of his bosses to look at what 5 words we feel best expresses the essence of what we do. Josh and his team rounded it out with two additional, and I have to say very important, concepts. Now our mission is encapsulated by the words “Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate, and Train”.  

Nice work Josh!