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Year-round Beach Destination

This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.  

One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.  

These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.  

We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc. 

New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them. 

For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.  

Hurricane Michael

Fortunately we dodged the Hurricane Michael bullet, but that was definitely a lesson to not let our guard down.

Nevertheless we saw some pretty decent coastal flooding on Tuesday into Wednesday. My office looks out over the Stewart Beach parking lot and it was surreal to watch it when the storm surge moved in. We were still a couple of hours from high tide and over the course of 15 or 20 minutes the entire parking lot went from dry to under a foot of water. It was like watching a flash flood as rivers started forming and eventually it ended up looking like a small lake.

Fortunately the Park Board Coastal Zone Management team had already started moving our lifeguard towers for the end of the season or we could have had some damage. They also scrambled to get the hundreds of trash cans they provide off the beach and out of the flooding.

Wednesday morning I got up early and paddled out at first light with another lifeguard. It was like a dream as we got to the outside break and saw wave after wave rolling in. They were long and clean and thick since the storm pushed them across hundreds of miles of gulf before they arrived. As the sun just popped up over the horizon I dropped into a head high freight train ride. The sun burned an orange swath in the wall of the wave as the offshore wind blew neon spray back. It felt like walking through the screen into one of the surf movies that my friends and I used to watch when we were in high school.

The waves stayed throughout the day, driven by the pulse sent out from Hurricane Michael. Hundreds of surfers lined the seawall, many of whom looked like they hadn’t been in the water for a long time. This is one of the difficult things for our guards. Everyone wants to ride the storm waves! So we get really good surfers who are out there all the time, novice surfers who are just starting to paddle out past the inside break, and “Al Bundy” surfers who have not, shall we say, kept themselves in peak condition. The guards have to have a practiced eye to pick out those who shouldn’t be out there and leave the others to enjoy their passion. If we or someone else doesn’t intervene, someone gets dragged across the rock groins by a rip current or a breaking wave. Others who are not tuned into the rules may try to surf close to the fishing piers, where city ordinance says they have to maintain a 300 foot distance. So the lifeguards end up being not just rescuers, prevention specialists, and enforcers; but also councilors and conflict mediators.

And at the end of the day, when the orange swell is colored by sunset instead of sunrise, the safety crew jumped in to enjoy a piece of what everyone else got while they were working.

Bitter Sweet

We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.

It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter.  In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.

But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.

We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.

See you on the beach or in the water!

You Will Be Missed!

As much as we’d like to keep things the same, things move on.

On the Beach Patrol our Command Staff has, for a number of years, been comprised of three people- me, Captain Tony Pryor, and Lieutenant Kara Harrison. Kara has decided it’s time for her to move on from the Beach Patrol.

I remember Kara as a rookie lifeguard. She was just out of Texas A&M and had moved to Galveston from Snyder, Texas. She was a model student. She was attentive and sailed through the written parts of the 100 hours of training. In the water she was a monster swimmer- one of our fastest. She could even run. But Beach Patrol has always had its fair share of athlete superstars. 50% of our academy depends on the less quantifiable qualities of teamwork, ethics, and interpersonal relationships. This is where Kara really shone.

As Kara moved up from seasonal Lifeguard to Senior Guard to Supervisor, she modeled these qualities. And they spread. As she moved into a year round position, went through the law enforcement academy and earned the rank of Sergeant, she was able to have a stronger and stronger effect on our staff and our culture. And as a Lieutenant and member of Command Staff she took on the role of leader and helped steer the course of the organization.

If Captain Pryor is, as some say, the Heart of the organization, Kara is definitely the soul. She has kept us centered and has been able to exert the unique ability to keep people calm and getting along. Everyone likes her, even those she’s disciplined, suspended, and even fired. She is a truly good person.

Like many of our key staff members she is 100% in if it has to do with community service. She is happy to go to school talks, health fairs, and represent us with our partner groups. I have come to depend on her as the person to send out to any event to represent us, and she always makes us look good.

As much as we hate to see her leave, we are happy for her that she’s moving on to new pastures.

Sometimes things move on. Sometimes they change. But that’s what life is. Many thanks to Kara for all that she brought to the table and for all the work, love, time, teaching, and people who are alive today because of her tireless prevention and proactive rescues.

Fortunately, she leaves at a time of new beginnings. 6 new future leaders will join us as full time staff members. For all the good things we lose without Kara, I feel certain that we’ll gain others with our new staff members- and with our existing staff members who now will no doubt bring new abilities in to fill the void.

We travel this path alone ultimately. But on the way we are joined for parts of this journey. I feel grateful I was able to share part of the Beach Patrol Journey with Lt. Kara Harrison.

Dust Devil

Lifeguard 3 Michael Lucero was working the early shift at Stewart Beach last Sunday. It was looking to be a slow day with rain in the Houston area and not many people moving around on the beachfront yet. He watched over maybe 50 people on the beach, with 10 or so in the water.

Since Lucero came to work with us I’ve always been impressed with how attentive and responsive he is. He’s always been really good about being proactive when he works in the tower. He trains hard and regularly, and he is consistently very nice and patient with our beach goers. He took the initiative to train as a dispatcher and this summer he did just as good a job coordinating 32 lifeguard towers, 7 rescue trucks, and a couple of mobile units (UTVs) simultaneously.

He did not disappoint when one of the more unexpected things possible happened Sunday. He came on the radio calmly letting his area supervisor know that a funnel cloud was developing behind his tower to the north. He then just as calmly called in that the funnel cloud had touched down in the parking lot of Stewart Beach and that he was going to move people out of the way.

We have dust devils all the time in the late summer. Usually they’re just strong enough to blow sand in people’s eyes and might uproot a couple of umbrellas. This wasn’t that.

When I got on site I could see the swirly tracks in the sand and it looked like the thing had barreled through with a diameter of about 15 yards. Witnesses reported that, as it came through the parking lot, about 10 of those heavy blue beach trashcans were swirling in the air maybe 30 feet off the ground. It blasted through the umbrella line and reportedly the umbrellas were converted to spear like projectiles while about 20 or so spun around and around.

These same witnesses all said basically the same thing. Before they knew they were in danger, Lucero first cleared the people in the water, and then moved the people on the sand out of harm’s way firmly and efficiently. When it was all over and he surmised that there were no injuries he stepped back up into his tower, called “Tower 6 back on location.” and resumed his duties of overseeing the public.

Obviously this could have gone a whole different way. But Michael was the perfect example of how we want our lifeguards to respond to emergencies. If they’re alert and proactive they can prevent injuries or worse before people even realize they’re in danger. He was quick in his thinking and in his actions without a lot of fuss. And it paid off!

As we look at the next few weeks and associated storm potential, let’s try to follow Lucero’s lead. Make sure you’re ahead of the game if the time comes to act. If officials put out warnings that recommend evacuation do so early and efficiently. And stay safe!

Wrapping up Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day weekend was interesting. Despite sketchy forecasts, each day by the afternoon we ended up with really nice conditions, some sunshine, moderate crowds, and nice water. On Monday it was especially nasty in the morning, so we put 18 guards “on call” and just worked the trucks until conditions improved. By the time the guards got out there, it was a pretty decent day and we even finished the official high season with a nice sunset.

Pretty early on Monday morning I heard on the fire channel something about a “water rescue”. Then I heard “Chief 1” saying he was going in for a rescue. Chief 1 is Fire Chief Mike Wisko. Was pretty cool to hear our Galveston Fire Chief up early on a holiday saving lives! Although the beach was quiet at the time, the action was on Broadway and the north side of the island. All the rain caused some pretty significant flooding. As calls started coming in for people stranded in the high water or EMS trying to get to patients, the Fire Department sounded pretty busy. I asked Chief Wisko if they wanted some assistance and we decided to put the Beach Patrol’s high water rescue vehicle in service at Fire Station 1 for the water calls that were deep.

Meanwhile on the beachfront there was a bit of lateral current which kept the lifeguards busy, but not overwhelmed. Although we dealt with very few emergencies, it was steady. By the end of the day Monday we’d done around 2,500 preventative actions where we moved people from, or warned them about, dangerous areas. Not bad for a weekend that looked like it would be completely rained out.

We still have until October 7th to work seasonal lifeguards, but many of them have turned their attention to school even if they will still be able help out on the weekends. After that we’ll do the best we can with those of us that work year round. We had a good crew this year and I’ll be really sorry to see them go. One consolation is that it looks like we’re a go for 4 additional year round positions, which will really take the pressure off on those busy weekends in October, November, and even December when we are struggling to stay on top of things without our tower lifeguards. The increased bodies will also enable us to increase our school water safety outreach program and to provide not only year round call, but year round patrol. Finally!

So as we move into the fall season we will start to see a series of frontal systems move through. Each of these is typically followed by beautiful, clear, dry days with small crowds. And we’ll start seeing the migratory birds moving through. This is the best beach season here, especially in the context of it being sandwiched between hot, crowded summer and cold windy winter days. So get ready to get out there and enjoy the best part of the year soon!

 

A. R. “Babe” Schwartz

We lost a hero when A. R. “Babe” Schwartz moved on from this world recently. His flame burned both brighter and longer than most.

Former Senator Schwartz, through all the twists and turns of his incredible career, never lost sight of the importance our Texas beaches play for the people of Texas. He never lost an opportunity to promote his deep held belief that Texas beaches are for all Texans and others to enjoy. He used every trick in his vast array to ensure that legislation was put in place to ensure that. A few of his many, many accomplishments that affect us here locally include the Texas Open Beaches Act, setting up the Park Board of Trustees as a vehicle to make sure tourist generated resources remain on the beach and are used to attract tourists, and ensuring Beach Patrol and Beach Maintenance are provided what they need to keep the beaches clean and safe for both tourists and locals. I never go into the annual budgeting process for Beach Patrol without feeling appreciation for what he did to make sure we have the tools we need to prevent accidents and make rescues on the beaches and in the adjacent waters of Galveston. Our budget currently is about 70% hotel occupancy tax. Thanks Babe.

Once, on a beautiful spring day, I had the good fortune to spend some time alone with him. He told me about what it was like to work Stewart Beach as a lifeguard in the ’40’s, and about surfing during those days when the sport was still young to the western world. Even after all this time, his love and enthusiasm for the beach and the ocean shone through as he talked. A true waterman never loses that, and it was evident in the timber of his voice and the way his eyes shone when he reminisced about that time. Funny how the beach never really lets you go once it gets its hooks in you.

Later that day I was standing at the shoreline at Stewart Beach while looking at the guards and the people playing in the water. I took a moment just to enjoy the feel of it. I realized that Babe Schwartz likely did the same thing in the same place 70 years before. If we respect the measures he put in place, another lifeguard will do the same thing on a beautiful, maintained, and well protected Galveston beach 70 years from now.

Babe Schwartz was a shining star. A person who believed deeply, that we, as a society, have a sacred obligation to work towards the common good. His belief that Texas beaches are to be used for all of us to spend time with nature, family, and friends was manifested in much of his life’s work. He felt that all of the beach should be a place for all people to take a break, enjoy one another, and celebrate this life.

Babe Schwartz lives on. His footprints are all over the beach.

Competitions

For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time.
Beach guards routinely make rescues of people caught in large surf or rip currents who are 40-100 yards off shore. Sometimes the victims are much farther out. The guards have to swim through currents, waves, and sometimes sea life to reach the people who need them. If the victim submerges before the guard gets to them there is little or no chance of locating them in the small window of time we have to revive them before they suffer brain damage or death.
For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time. Of all the public safety groups lifeguards rely the least on equipment and the most on physical conditioning. Because every rescue is a race, every beach lifeguard is an athlete. And not only do we have to recruit athletes but we have to ensure they stay in top physical conditioning throughout the season. To do this every day they work they go through a rigorous training session that includes physical conditioning and skills practice. We also use competition. Competition is as woven throughout the lifeguard culture as reading is though education. We have local competitions weekly. We compete with other groups in Texas. And once a year a select few lifeguards and juniors compete in the United States National Lifeguard Championships. Those that qualify meet hundreds of beach guards and JGs from around the country. They share stories and ideas, learn about techniques, equipment, and how other beaches and agencies are managed. And they bring that knowledge and enthusiasm back.
This year the championships were in Virginia Beach, which is interesting in itself because of the level of support and resources the city puts into its beachfront.
Galveston did well, especially when you consider we competed against the best of the best in the entire country. Our junior guard team crushed it with Nadine Barrera- 8th in swim rescue, Noah Barrera- 8th in 2K beach run, Axel Denner- 6th in 2K beach run and 7th in beach flags, Mac Livanec- 9th in 2K beach run and 8th in beach flags, and Will Brindley getting 7th in beach flags and 8th in the rescue race. Our lifeguard team also did well, particularly in the age group categories, which start at 30 years of age. Top 10th place finishes in age group events included our resident rock star athlete Kevin Anderson, who got 4th places in both run-swim-run and in the American ironman (run-swim-paddle-row). He also got 5th in the international ironman (run-swim-paddle-surfski), and in the surf swim. And in the surf ski race he got 5th. He also got a 14th spot against the young bucks in the open surf ski race! I had a decent year as well with age group finishes of 3rd in surf ski and in American ironman, 4th in run-swim-run and in the beach run, 5th in surf swim and in international ironman, 6th in ironguard (run-swim-paddle), and 7th in the rescue board race.
All in all we did G-town proud!

Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

Jetty Jump

The young woman crouched down on the slippery surface of the rocks. Her heart beat rapidly as she watched the guy in front of her navigate down the steep part. She tried to ignore the cuts on the top of her foot from the last try. “This time I’ll get it right”, she thought to herself determinedly. He jumped and landed with his rescue tube held out in front of him. “NO!” shouted the instructor. “Keep that buoy tight to your body so you hit like a pancake…And remember head up and buoy covering all your important parts when you hit the water!”
When her turn came she walked forward carefully, making sure her bare feet avoided the green patches of algae. The small barnacles were like sandpaper that gave her feet good purchase. As long as she didn’t twist them or step on the parts with big barnacles, she’d have minimal cuts the next day. At least that’s what her instructor told her.
As she came to the steep part she stopped, rehearsing everything her instructor told her. She made sure there was no slack in the rope connecting to her rescue tube and that the heavy buckle was not on the end near her face. She kept her center of gravity low, but made sure she didn’t rest her butt or her rescue tube on the rocks so a passing wave would pass under her instead of sweeping her off her feet and across the barnacle ridden rocks. Most importantly, she reminded herself to watch the water.
As a gap between the sets of waves approached the instructor said, “Now. Ease down. Watch the water”. As she lowered herself down she stood up straight briefly. “FOCUS!” her instructor shouted. “Three point stance, butt down, but not all the way on the rocks” she added. The young woman corrected herself and got in position. She watched the water intently, waiting.
“Here it comes!” shouted the instructor. A large set of waves was rolling in. It was too late to go back up to the relative safety of high ground. The woman’s throat felt dry and she momentarily felt nauseous.
“I can do this”, she said to herself. She focused on the first wave. Time slowed down and her vision narrowed. She couldn’t hear anything. As the wave neared she jumped. She held the buoy to her chest tightly and arched her back as she floated above the water for what seemed like an eternity.
BOOM! She landed on the crest and slid off the back. Time returned to normal as she rolled sideways and put on her fins in one smooth motion. She took a couple of careful strokes and realized she hadn’t hit anything. She surfaced and turned around. Her instructor had a big smile on her face and she shouted, “Perfect! 3 more…”
The woman smiled to herself as she used the rip current to swim around the jetty. When the time came to do it for real, she’d be ready.