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Easter Wrap Up

A young boy and girl lay on a small sand dune. They were 3-4 years old and looked to be brother and sister. Although the day was not hot, the sand was nice and warm once the sun peeked out. They jabbered at each other while they piled the sand up and rolled around. A man who looked to be their dad looked on from just the right distance. Close enough to make sure they were safe, but far enough to give them the space to explore and discover.

As part of my routine, I often get tacos and eat them on the beach somewhere on the west seawall. When we get busy, we end up going from crisis to crisis. When we’re not so strapped, there’s always work waiting for me in my office or in my mobile office (truck). I like eating on the beach and watching people that are just out there enjoying themselves, like these two kids. Taking a few minutes to remind myself what an important space the beach provides for so many people helps to keep perspective. So much of our lives as coastal dwellers are punctuated by moments on the beach. People come for solace, to commune with nature, for exercise and sport, to share moments together, to have some time alone, or just to enjoy being out there on a beautiful day. I couldn’t help but think how I could be witnessing a moment for this particular family that they’d remember for the rest of their lives. For that matter, any number of the thousands of people that visited the beach over Easter Weekend (or any day on the beach) could be having that kind of moment.

Looking back, Easter has at times been a huge event for us with loads of rescues, lost children, medical emergencies, etc. But not this past weekend. Not to say that there weren’t lots of people here. The entire island was full of people and there were plenty of people on the beach. We were steady but not slammed. All told we made over 3,000 preventative actions, 5 medical responses, 118 enforcement actions, 2 lost kids reunited with parents, and one rescue. Comparing this to previous years and looking at the crowd, there was one factor that made the difference.

With the water temperature being in the mid 60’s it was just cold enough to keep people from staying in the water for long periods of time. They would get in, swim around for a bit, then get out and warm up. This took the burden of the guards. 3,000 people moved from rocks is a lot of work for our staff, but nothing like the 5-7,000 people we’d have moved if the water was just a few degrees warmer. This little “buffer” wont last long as we’re quickly approaching the magic number for water temp- 70 degrees. Once we hit 70, any time there’s people on the beach and warm air we’ll get real busy real fast.

OTB: Pre-Easter

The Easter holiday has been a big beach day for many years but has grown to be one of our major holidays. The seawall, beach parks, and west end have been packed on this weekend in recent history. For many people, particularly for families, going to the beach on Easter Weekend is a tradition.

For the Beach Patrol, it’s an especially busy holiday because normally, waves, currents, and people create equal work for lifeguards. Historically, the numbers support that. Looking back and picking a weekend just a few years ago, we had a total of 36 missing children reunited, 63 medical treatments, 7 rescues, 2 near-drownings, and 1,529 people moved from dangerous areas like those with rip currents. We could see numbers like that or even more with the increase in beach tourism we’ve had lately. Over Spring Break alone, we made over 5,200 preventative actions.

Part of the reason our “preventative actions”, of which the vast majority are moving people away from groins and piers where there are always rip currents, are so important is that each of these could potentially be life threatening. Its also especially impressive to see these numbers this time of year because the bulk of our workforce are students who are in school. We have very few available guards in the spring compared to the summer months. A lot of the work falls on the shoulders of mobile patrols which are largely staffed by our 12 full time Lifeguard Supervisors, including one Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. Mobile patrols are great for emergency response, much the same as EMS and the Fire Department operate. They are also critical in covering large swaths of beachfront and looking for situations that could potentially develop into something life threatening. But nothing compares to a trained lifeguard who is stationed in a tower and watching a section of beach. In the summer months we are able to staff most, or all of our 32 lifeguard towers each day. In the Spring we strategically place available guards in our highest risk and most populated areas. Statistics and experience help us figure out where these spots are. This is why our most important safety tip is to swim near a lifeguard.

After reading a glimpse into our inner workings, I’m sure you understand how important our Wave Watcher Program is, which involves volunteers who are trained to have a practiced eye, patrolling sections of the beach and letting us or other emergency response groups know if they see anything developing. If you or anyone you know is interested in joining this group and our Beach Patrol family, there is a free training course starting April 12th and information on our website.

The weather looks to be favorable for a big holiday event. The water is in the mid to high 60’s and is a little cold, but if the past few weekends are any indicator that won’t slow a lot of people down. Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!

OTB – Wave Watchers

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 this 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 embedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, our School Outreach Program that provides instruction to over 30,000 children per year, and more. One program that we’re particularly excited about and hope that many of you will participate in is the “Wave Watcher Program”.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for 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. This year the academy will be held April 12-16 from 8am to noon.

The course will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, general beach safety, first aid and CPR specially tailored to the beach environment, tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training), municipal ordinances related to the beach and waterfront, and Wave Watcher operations. On the final day, we’ll do a site by a site visit of “hot spots” for water safety and discuss in detail how our Wave Watchers can integrate into Beach Patrol operations. The course will culminate in a lunch with experienced Wave Watchers and Beach Patrol staff.

Once through the academy Wave Watchers will be able to volunteer for various duties if they desire. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”, so are able to 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 will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us. The class will cap at 50 and will be first come first serve. Classes will be held at the Beach Patrol Headquarters on the top floor of the Stewart Beach Pavilion. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome. There will be options for virtual learning, in person learning, or a hybrid. Wave Watchers and Wave Watcher candidates will observe the same social distancing and mask requirements that Beach Patrol employees follow when they are in class or on patrols while wearing their Wave Watcher uniform.

To register or get more info email us at gibpadmin@galvestonparkboard.org

We hope you will join our team and family for a fun way to support a great cause!

OTB – Beach Safety Information

There’s nothing better than Galveston beaches for getting toes in the sand, sun on the face, and your daily dose of salt! We’re here to help you do it safely.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com  is certified as an “advanced” level agency of the United States Lifesaving Association www.usla.org , and is the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston. It is a Texas Department of Health certified first response agency employing over 140 people when at full strength, comprised of lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. The mission of GIBP is to protect the over 7 million people who visit the Galveston beaches each year, respond to aquatic emergencies 24/7/365, educate the public about beach safety, and be a good community partner. Our highest priority is to get each beach visitor home safely.

Here are a few of the more important safety tips:

Swim Near a Lifeguard– Galveston boasts an “Advanced Level” Lifeguard service certified by the United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org). We’re out there from early morning till dark throughout the summer at the large beach parks and along the seawall, so shouldn’t be hard to find the right place. The guard is an added layer of protection, although you are still responsible for you and your family’s safety. They are there not only to protect you, but to serve as ambassadors for all the island has to offer.

Avoid Rip Currents– Specifically stay away from the rocks and structures- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current that will pull you out. If caught in a rip current, relax and float until the currents and waves return you to shore. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore towards breaking waves where the water is shallow and then go to shore. Never enter a rip to help someone. Instead throw a floating object like the ring buoys and ropes in the rescue boxes on the groins.

Avoid Swimming at the Ends of the Island– the San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have strong tidal currents and changing bottom contours. Fish from shore in these areas!

Don’t Swim Alone– your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.

Don’t Dive in Headfirst– to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.

Observe Warning Signs and Flags– all 600 of ours are all bilingual and use icons

Lifejackets– Non-swimmers and children should use properly fitted lifejackets when in our around the water.

Alcohol and Water Don’t Mix– many of the beaches here are alcohol free

Take Precautions from the Heat and Sun– such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.

Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability. And most importantly maintain good situational awareness and….

Don’t Check Your Brain at the Causeway!

OTB – Spring Break Kickoff

Tomorrow morning at 7am we will be holding the first lifeguard tryout of the season. If you know anyone who is interested in taking on the tough but rewarding job of joining the team that protects over 7 million people that visit our beaches annually, tell them to meet us at the UTMB Field House swimming pool. If they pass the swim, interview, and drug test, they can begin the lifeguard academy right away. The academy involves medical training, lifeguard skills, open water swimming techniques, physical training, tourist relations, environmental awareness, and team building. It’s not for everyone, but those that make it through will never find anything else quite as rewarding. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience preventing accidents and saving lives on a daily basis.

Despite the weird freeze we just had, it’s impossible to deny that spring is here. You can feel it in the way the wind blows, the smells, and how the light looks as the days lengthen. The sun feels so good this time of year, and more and more people are out on the beach fishing, walking, surfing, and just enjoying the return of good weather.

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, 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. And be sure not to swim at the ends of the island (San Luis Pass and Ship Channel), because of the strong tidal currents and irregular bottom.

One of our main concerns on the beach front is that people stay far from the rocks to avoid rip currents. Rip currents are narrow channels of water that run away from shore and are responsible for 80% of rescues in the beach environment both locally and nationally. If caught in a rip current, just relax and float, you will eventually most likely be brought back to shore by the currents and waves. If you’re able, swim parallel to shore out of the current towards breaking waves.

If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. We have a crew of lifeguards that will requalify tomorrow morning and will be out on the stands by the time the crowds arrive. The trends all point to the possibility of record crowds during Spring Break and throughout the summer. Galveston is booming and we’re going to see another big beach year. Granted the demands this puts on our community’s resources is significant and it makes all the public safety departments jobs tough, but it’s like the Spanish saying, “Vale la pena”. It’s worth the effort. If we can provide a tourist friendly, safe, fun experience for our visitors and locals, everyone goes home happy. This means repeat business that we all benefit from.

OTB – Spring Break and SSN

Looks like all signs point to yet another big Spring Break! Seems like one day its winter and the next the sun’s out, the water’s warm, and the beaches are packed. Despite the fact that we’ve just been through an ice storm and are a year into the Covid pandemic, we all need to gear up for the beach season. Ready for another year on the beach and all the challenges, work, and even joy that it brings.

Don’t forget that next weekend on Saturday, March 13th, we have lifeguard tryouts. Our website had details if you or someone you know is interested. We need the help!

As you know, we put a great deal of effort into preventing drownings and the numbers have been reduced through the years. Unfortunately, despite these efforts there are usually a handful each year. Support for the families has traditionally been one of the hardest things for our staff. If the body is not recovered rapidly, families can end up sitting on the beach near the last spot that person was for long periods of time. In these few cases, there can be the need for food and drink, counseling, translating, acting as a point of contact for different agencies, and dealing with consulates and embassies, etc.

As you can imagine, this was way beyond the scope of what a lifeguard agency can effectively handle. Our friends and partners at the Jesse Tree stepped up a few years ago. Ted Handley and David Mitchell developed a program with our input called the “Survivor Support Network” (SSN).

The SSN is a web of people and organizations that respond to this type of situation. They have filled all the needs described above and even provided Critical Incident Stress Debriefings to the lifeguard staff after undergoing traumatic experiences. They have provided this service at little or no cost to us for a number of years and we are deeply appreciative, as are the people whose lives they touch.

All kinds of non-profits like the Jesse Tree are suffering in the current economy, so volunteers are all the more important. The SSN relies on volunteers groups and people to function. If you or your group is interested in participating in this incredible program, please contact David Mitchell at the Jesse Tree 409-762-2233 or dmitchel@jessetree.net . We’re especially interested in finding licensed grief councilors or people that specialize in Critical Incident Stress Management, but everyone’s got a skill or resource that is welcome.

Typically, the SSN is only activated a handful of times a year, but when it is the need is severe. I can’t begin to tell you the difference I’ve seen it have on the lives it touches. If you feel this is for you, get with David.

Another option to help the beach guards and the general public is to join the Wave Watcher Cadre. More on that later, but info is on our website and we’ll have an academy in April.

See you on the beach!

OTB – Season Starting

The beach water temperature dropped down to 45 degrees during the ice storm. And two weeks from now we’ll be starting the main week of spring break. Must be Texas.

We’ll be holding lifeguard tryouts that weekend as well on Saturday, March 13th, at 7am at UTMB Pool House, 301 Holiday Dr. Anyone interested can find details on our website www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com. Don’t be late we start right at 7! Spend your summer on the beach in a fun, challenging, and a responsible position working as an Ocean Lifeguard! The Spring Break Lifeguard Academy will start immediately after the swim and drug test. At the end of the 9-day course graduates will start working the Galveston beaches. The course involves open water swimming and rescue techniques, a beefy first aid and CPR course, being a tourism ambassador, diversity training, a leadership module, training on how to enforce beach rules and city ordinances, representing the Park Board and the City of Galveston, and a lot more. It’s one of the most challenging things many of our candidates have ever done but the rewards are worth it.

We’re now in a pre-game flurry of activity, especially since we lost a little ground last week. We maintain over 600 safety signs along the beachfront and all of them need to be back up before Spring Break kicks off.  Many of these have to be set using a water jet, so we have to have just the right tide and wave conditions. While the crew is out there, they also jet out any stumps that are broken off from previous signage. We try to remove any light debris and work with the Coastal Zone Management crew to get the heavier stuff out. Prevention isn’t just about moving swimmers away from rocks!

We are also starting to do water safety talks for the schools in the Houston/Galveston area. Normally we’d be deep into this part of our program, but Covid has thrown the schools for a loop and many are just now getting scheduled. Lots of these will happen on Zoom this year, so we’re learning to navigate all of that.

We’re also looking at a hybrid Wave Watcher Academy for our volunteer cadre. If you’re interested in attending the free Wave Watcher Academy this year, you’ll have the option to do it online, in-person with Covid precautions, or a combination of the two.

One thing we’re going to reinstate this year is our Junior Guard Program. This popular day camp will be back, also with new safety precautions due to Covid. We are currently accepting applications, so if you have kids between 10-15 we’d love to have them join the team. We even have scholarships available for those who qualify.

We are anticipating an extremely busy beach season and it will kick off shortly whether or not it feels like it right now. We’ll need every piece of our safety network and the help of all our partner groups to keep the millions who will visit our beaches safe. We need you!

OTB: African American Lifeguard Heroes!

Last week’s column was an overview of our local lifeguarding history that left off with the time that African American beaches were designated by law and by Galveston’s dominant culture of the time. To talk about this part of our collective beach history I have to lean on someone who knows much more about this (and about pretty much everything else), my wife.

Carol Bunch-Davis works at Texas A&M Galveston as the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, is an Associate Professor of English, and is the Chair of the Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Committee. No, she doesn’t write these columns for me (looking at you Tom Linton)! At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Anyway, Carol recently wrote an essay called “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards” that I’ll draw from for this column.

In 1922 there were already two African American Beaches. One was at 28th and was referred to as “Brown Beach”, and the other on the west end and was called “Sunset Camps”.

Waverly Guidry worked the 28th street beach location from 1942 until 1957. When he died his obituary didn’t mention his lifesaving career, but referred to him as a ‘self-employeed

When Wavery Guidry died in 1986 at the age of 74, the obituary did not mention his 14 seasons as lifeguard at 28th Street Beach, or “Brown Beach” as it was sometimes called. It instead identified Guidry as “a self-employed vegetable man” and a “merchant seaman”. But he was the second African American lifeguard to work that beach and is credited with nearly 30 rescues that were documented in the local news, and likely many that weren’t documented.

One example that illustrates just some of the challenges that lifeguards, and particularly African American guards, of the day faced occurred when an African American worker on the Pleasure Pier fell off some scaffolding and drowned. Being a white beach, they called Guidry from his guard post to find the body. He spent hours with a grappling hook, which was the technique of the time, looking for the body as the two white guards on duty stood watching him.

The African American community petitioned for a paid lifeguard from 1921 until 1935 when James Helton was officially hired. He’d actually been volunteering as a guard from the time he graduated from Central High School a year earlier. He worked most of his career at the port as a stevedore and finished his beach guarding in1943. Early in his career, a fully dressed white woman walked into the water. A white deputy noticed her and turned his car around to see what was going on. Helton dove into the water and saved the woman from drowning and potential suicide. Effecting what was, no doubt, a difficult save as a young man starting his career, he woke the following day to read in Galveston Tribune that the rescue was attributed to “the intuition of a special deputy sheriff with the assistance of a negro lifeguard”.

 

 

Photo:  Courtesy of Rosenberg Library

OTB – Gtown Lifesaving up till 50’s

We’ve got about a month before lifeguard tryouts. Spread the word to anyone interested and tell them to start swimming and check our website for details! We’re going to need a lot of new guards to address the increased beach use that’s been trending.

With just a few weeks left before the beach kicks into high gear and each week there is news for this column, it’s a great time to look backwards.

As you may know, the first lifeguards were really dealing with shipwrecks. But through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for marking sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.

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 paid lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the then-called “Negro Beach” on 28th street, which was guarded by a small number of African American lifeguarding pioneers. (More to come on that topic). Galveston also had what may have been the first all women “Surf and Toboggan Club” un the USA, which helped tremendously by stationing a rescue boat and rowing team on the beach during busy times. Guards worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “Lifesaving Beach Patrol System,” and the first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing  number of beachgoers. The area at the west end of the seawall became a second designated beach for African Americans.

 

 

Photos courtesy of the Rosenberg Library

OTB Fog

Warm air and cold water these days. Spring weather. This combination brings in one of the best and worst phenomena along the beachfront. Sea fog. It can be totally clear, and a big bank of fog can roll in unexpectedly. And since the whole coastal plains area is full of water, this fog can extend well inland.

From a lifeguarding and marine rescue standpoint sea fog is a disaster. Along the beachfront we have to go into a “special operation mode” involving walking out on each groin to see if anyone is getting near the rocks. Boat operations are a nightmare even with the use of GPS, sonar, and radar. Fog affects almost all aspects of water rescue and search and recovery work.

I like all kinds of training on the water, but one of my favorites is the surf ski. The “lifeguard spec” ski is basically a 17-foot-long ocean kayak but is extremely narrow. Think sculling but facing forward with a fancy double bladed kayak paddle. Once you have the hang of it, they are very fast and efficient. Paddling at a decent distance pace you can make about 5-6 miles in an hour. I love to paddle straight out into the chop for about three miles then head back. On the way back you can catch little runners on offshore swells, and it’s like taking a long downhill ski run. While getting a great workout you see dolphins and all kinds of other wildlife and get far enough offshore that you feel like you get some perspective.

A younger guard who has taken up the surf ski recently asked me for advice. The first thing I told him was to get a watch with a compass and never go without it, especially in the spring. With so many Spring days having cold water and warm air the fog can roll in unexpectedly at any time. I’ve had numerous experiences when the day looked clear and I got caught offshore. It’s incredibly easy to lose your orientation if there are no reference points. After one close call years ago where I had to use the position of the bright area where the sun was as a reference point in order to find my way back, I never went on the water again without a compass.

Like much of life on the beach, and life in general, things come with a good and a bad side. With all the danger sea fog brings, there is good. Earlier this week at dusk I was catching some nice glassy waves out in front of my house, lying on my board in a toasty wetsuit and feeling connected and in the moment. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything more than 30 yards away. The moisture in the air amplified all sounds to the point where I could hear every seagull or sound on the beach for a mile away. The fog seemed to insulate from every negative thing out there while locking in all the good.