Tag: Galveston Marine Response

08 Mar
By: Supervisor 0

Spring Break Tryouts!

Spring Break is here! We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow (Saturday) morning at the City of Galveston Pool at Lasker Park at 2016 43rd starting at 7am rain or shine. Those who pass the swim, drug test, and interview will start the same day in the Lifeguard Academy and will be paid for their training time. Information is at www.galvestonbeachpatrol.com

Last week we left off at the end of part two of a 3 part column on lifesaving history in Galveston. We were talking about the late 70’s, when the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. High drowning rates became a civil and tourist issue and something needed to be done.

Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor and many others all contributed significantly. The result of multiple discussions was that the Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol with a start up grant from the Moody Foundation and annual funding of hotel tax funneled through the Park Board of Trustees (thank you Babe!), who also took over management of the beach maintenance and parks.. The formation of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) as a national organization and the modernization and expansion of the Beach Patrol all happened in 1980 at a conference at Texas A&M Galveston orchestrated largely by Dr. Jim McCloy. Through the USLA many lifeguard agencies helped Galveston to modernize the lifeguard service.

Vic Maceo was the Director of the Galveston Beach Patrol from 1983–2007. During his tenure, a formal lifeguard academy was implemented which eventually  included nearly 100 hours of rigorous training. We implemented USLA’s national standards, formed supervisory hierarchy, started our Surf Condition Flag System and became the first beach agency to use staggered shifts to increase coverage for the same money.

In 2007, Vic Maceo retired, passing the torch to Chief Peter Davis. Shortly after that, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol fell solely under the management of the Park Board of Trustees

Today, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an elite certified “Advanced Agency” by the USLA. We protect nearly 7 million beach visitors annually. We are the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston and certified as a first-responder agency through the Department of Health. A staff of over 130 includes lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. GIBP also has a Junior Lifeguard Program, with nearly 120 kids participating annually, and around 15 community based programs under its umbrella.

Each year we average 110,000 preventative actions, and 200 rescues. Last year alone we provided safety talks for over 23,000 school kids, responded to approximately 1,700 medical calls and made about the same number of enforcement actions.

Because we stand on the shoulders of so many dedicated predecessors, have such a great staff, and are supported by the Park Board, the City, and the Galveston community, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is now widely recognized as one the most professional and proactive lifeguard agencies in the United States.

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03 Mar
By: Supervisor 0

Galveston’s Lifesaving History Continued

Last week I wrote about the history of lifesaving in Galveston up to the late 1800’s. I’d like to continue that history, but  that our first lifeguard tryouts will be next week on Saturday 10th at the city pool on 29th and seawall at 7am. Information can be found at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com . Spread the word!

When we left off, the United States was divided into several different Life Saving Districts and Galveston was assigned as the headquarters of the Ninth District. 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, saving swimmers from drowning. 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 markings of 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 lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the so-called “Negro Beach on 29th street.” They each worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their 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. Though the number of lifeguards fluctuated throughout the year, the lifeguard group continued to flourish. By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Even though they consistently had between 20–30 lifeguards, they struggled with organization and stability, much like other beach lifesaving agencies across the United States.

The Early 80’s broke this trend. More to come…


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23 Feb
By: Supervisor 0

Galveston’s Lifesaving History

Galveston’s lifesaving history is long and storied, much like Galveston herself.

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas. Galveston hosted the first post office (1836), naval base (1836), cotton compress (1842), a Catholic parochial school (Ursuline Academy, 1847), an insurance company (1854), and also the first gas lights (1856).

Galveston was in need of equipment to aid mariners who encountered problems. A national organization based out of the east coast, called the United States Life Saving Service, was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners.

This government agency gave a “Francis Life Boat” to the Collector of the Galveston Port, to be employed in cases of vessels in distress.

On June 2, 1857, the steamship Louisiana, which was full of furniture and lumber, caught fire 5 miles off the coast of Galveston. Due to poor housing and an inconvenient storage location, the then-current Francis Life Boat was not able to be used for rescue. Hundreds of Galvestonians stood on the shoreline in despair as they watched the ship burn and sink with its 35 helpless crewmen.

This event prompted citizens to petition the city for appropriate funds, not only to build a proper boat house, but also to mount the Francis Life Boat on a wheeled carriage for easier transportation. The Federal Government also supplied funds for two additional lifeboats, lifesaving equipment, and a permanent boathouse. Fifty-two volunteers submitted their names to the Mayor for support in creating the Galveston Life Boat Association.

It is thought that the equipment was destroyed when the Union captured Galveston in 1862 during the Civil War. When the war was over, no equipment was salvageable. The Life Boat Association no longer existed and any lifesaving efforts were at a halt.

In November 1875, another tragedy occurred when the steamship “City of Waco”, hailing from New York City, arrived in Galveston to unload its cargo and suddenly burst into flames. Strong winds and rough waters prevented any aid from nearby vessels in the harbor, leaving Galvestonians and sailors to watch in horrified awe as the City of Waco sank immediately. A memorial service at the Grand Opera House paid tribute to the 35 sailors who lost their lives in the tragedy and criticized the city for lack of appropriate means to come to their aid.

After this event, it was requested that the city build a lifesaving station on the island, in honor of those fallen men. The City received $200,000 from Congress to professionalize the Galveston organization. This money went to getting new equipment and structures for housing the lifesaving materials at the new life station’s location at Kuhn’s Wharf off 18th Street. This was the same year the lifesaving station was established at what is now the San Luis Pass and we’ve had lifesavers on Galveston continuously ever since, although the form that changed a few years later, following national and international trends.

(to be continued)

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16 Feb
By: Supervisor 0

Swift Water

The first lifeguards were trying to spot shipwrecks and help the occupants off as best they could. Most of the work happened at night as sailing ships weren’t able to see hazards during the dark hours. It was cold and dangerous work, especially considering that very few people were able to swim at the time; and that included the “Lifesaver Men”.

The industrial revolution helped create a leisure class, who had time to recreate. “Bathing” at the beach became a national craze, and lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene. The idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on their own. They worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup. These days, when things go bad, help is on the way before the guard even hits the water. In the early days of recreational swimming, those kinds of resources were not possible economically or culturally. Our local Galveston lifeguard hero of the past, Leroy Colombo had the mantra of “One beach, one lifeguard”. It’s a testament to his physical and mental ability that he survived making over 1,000 rescues.

The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the effect that employ a  whole rescue “chain”. Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. It’s safer for the rescuers and more effective. It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizzazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard”.

Now Beach Patrol works in teams to the greatest extent possible. Our goal can be broken down with a simple mathematical equation. Our system is the number of victims equaling the number of rescuers plus one. Saving even one person alone is risky. For this reason we focus to such a large extent on preventing accidents instead of making rescues. And when we have to make them, we make them as a team when possible.

Teamwork doesn’t stop with the Beach Patrol. One of our most successful partnerships is with the other groups that respond to water emergencies and is called the Galveston Marine Response (GMR). Although the formation of the GMR was intended to address large scale aquatic disasters, a byproduct is increased efficiencies when responding to any water related emergency.

Swift Water Rescue and Urban Flooding response is an area all GMR groups help with. To further this end, this week the Beach Patrol sent three full time staff members to San Marcos to be certified as “Swiftwater Rescue Technicians”. This is a tough class involving hours and hours in swift water and flat water learning rescue techniques that we don’t use on the beachfront. They even do simulated searches and rope rescues at night. Painful and cold! But they will come back with a much widened skill set that will be a huge help next time it floods here.

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26 Jan
By: Supervisor 0

New Era of Rescue Services?

Recently some footage of what was reported to be the first real water rescue made by a drone at Lennox Head, New South Wales, Australia went viral. There were two swimmers just outside the surf line kind of floating around. The footage was from the drone itself as it dropped this package from maybe 100 feet up. Upon impact this big sausage looking thing inflated. Two swimmers swam over to it and floated on it back to shore. At one point it looked like a wave knocked one of them off it, but the guy swam easily back to it and rode it in. The announcer talked about how it was the first rescue by drones.

Drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite awhile now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly the on a set schedule as shark spotters. The operators have to be trained as pilots since they’re a governmental agency. Newport Beach, which is pretty cashed up, flies them three times a week for a 20 minute flight. If they see a shark bigger than a certain size they increase the schedule until it moves out of the area. There’s actually an Australian company that has gotten into them pretty heavily for mountain rescue that have been working up prototypes on the beach. The one I’ve seen is called the “Little Ripper”.  The mountain rescue ones have been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them as they wait for help to arrive on foot. But the ocean has been more of a challenge.

Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mile an hour winds. The Little Ripper is apparently a bit better in flight time and can fly in slightly higher winds. It also can be equipped with night vision. But even so, that’s not much good in search and recovery operations that typically take place during pretty extreme conditions over large areas, requiring much longer flight times.

This “rescue” was the byproduct of a $430,000 government funded program and it was on a test flight by a happy coincidence. It looks like the two swimmers were not actually in distress, but maybe they were tired. They were able to swim to the tube a couple of times. It looks like had they actually been drowning they couldn’t have made forward motion to grab the float.

I think the day will come where there will be drones available that may be able to augment beach lifesaving programs in very real and cost effective ways. Particularly in remote locations or for search and recovery operations. For now they’re a great way to get a camera in the air for short periods of time under the right conditions. It appears for a while longer we’ll be droning on about drones every time something like this goes viral.

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05 Jan
By: Supervisor 0

Lyle Gun

It was a moonless bitter cold night as the hooded figure walked along the beachfront. His long coat swirled around him as the icy rain and wind whipped through his clothes despite his efforts to keep them wrapped around his thin body. He held his lantern to the side so as not to hamper his ability to scan the ocean for lights. He still had a few miles to walk before he reached the turnaround point, where he would meet another man in a small warming hut. They would spend some time chatting and exchange tokens, so each could show their station master proof that they’d made the grueling trek.

Suddenly he noticed the thing that every Lifesaver Man dreads and at the same time hopes for. He spotted a light offshore that moved back and forth. To the untrained eye it would look innocuous, but he recognized what it was immediately. A ship was grounded and getting pounded by waves. He ran to the area and saw the size of the ship, which gave him an idea of how many passengers there were. He signaled with his light, and then ran the whole way back to the station. The station master sounded the alarm and the crew scrambled a response. It was too rough and windy to think about launching the rescue boat, but the ship was close enough to shore to bring the “Lyle Gun”, which was essentially a small cannon. They hooked a team of donkeys to the cannon and went as fast as possible.

When the crew arrived, they went through a practiced procedure that involved firing the cannon at the ship with a weighted object tied to a light line. This line was used to connect a heavier line to a sand anchor. Using a simple but ingenious pulley system they were able to send a “Bosun’s” chair back and forth on the heavier line. Pulling one person at a time across the gap between the ship that was being battered to a pulp to the shore took hours for the team. Once they had everyone on shore, most of the survivors and a few of the rescuers could hardly function and had to be carried to the station by the team of donkeys on a cart. From there the families of the Lifesaver Men, who lived in a tiny settlement adjacent to the station cared for them until they recovered.

The first lifeguards in Galveston were men like these. The US Lifesaving Service had a station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875. Eventually, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and recreational swimming, it split into the Red Cross and the US Coast Guard.

I can’t imagine how hard a life these brave men led. They worked under the most extreme conditions and displayed incredible bravery. But the same spirit exists in the men and women that protect Galveston and our nation’s beaches today.

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22 Dec
By: Supervisor 0

So Much To Be Thankful For

During the holiday season I try, as many of us do, to focus on the things I’m thankful for.  This year I asked each of our permanent staff members what they, as a representative of the Beach Patrol, feel most thankful for. Here are their responses:

“…adequate resources to protect almost 7 million visitors a year. Also for being provided with the equipment to do this in the form of towers, rescue boards, and state of the art communication systems, water craft, and vehicles.” –Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas

“I’m thankful to be able to work on the beach. And being able to interact with the community so closely.” –Supervisor Dain Buck

“I’m thankful for the experience this job has given me and for all the people I connect with.” -Senior Lifeguard Nikki Harclerode

“I appreciate that the community and the Park Board is so involved in what we do”. –Captain Tony Pryor

“I’m grateful for support from the community and other first responder groups, the Park Board administration and other departments we work closely with such as the Coastal Zone Management Department. We’re not roommates, but we all live in the same house and those guys are always there to help us out when needed.”-Senior Lifeguard Micah Fowler

“I’m thankful for the Galveston Police Department and the Galveston Fire Department for remaining so supportive towards our community. As a team we have created and maintained a safe beachfront for our islanders.” –Supervisor Brandon Venigas

“Working at Beach Patrol for the last 2 ½ years has been an incredible experience! I’ve met so many wonderful people that have become close family friends and I absolutely love my job. Nothing beats getting to look out on the gulf every single day and I never get tired of pulling into the sandy parking lot to head into work. Working for Beach Patrol instills a great sense of pride and satisfaction knowing that I work for an agency of first responders who help to save lives.” –Sara Lavella, Administrative Coordinator

“I am blessed to live in a coastal community like Galveston. I am grateful for the support the community shows and the opportunities I get to serve and protect others through my job with Galveston Island Beach Patrol and Galveston Island Swim Team.” –Lieutenant Kara Harrison

And for me, I echo the themes that run through the tapestry of these statements. I feel so grateful to Galveston for providing the resources and support of all kinds that we receive. I’m lucky to work in a physical and emotional landscape like the Galveston beachfront. Mostly, I appreciate the brave and dedicated men and women that work alongside each other to do this job. The quotes they gave me were not put on or dressed up. They simply are stating what they feel and how they live. Working with these 8 and another 130 or so seasonal lifeguards who feel the same way, who work together towards our shared mission is more of a gift than I could possibly express adequately with words.

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15 Dec
By: Supervisor 0

Cold Foggy Days

The water temperature on the beachfront dropped 12 degrees in 3 days last week. This is a pretty dramatic shift as only a degree or two makes a significant difference when you’re swimming. Because the water is so shallow here on the upper Texas coast the water temperature is constantly changing during the fall and spring. A few warm or cold days can have a big impact. Another factor is when fronts blow through and take the warm water, which sits close to the surface, out to sea which allows the deeper, cooler water to well up.

With recent water temps in the 50’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a couple miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, and then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water!

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01 Dec
By: Supervisor 0

Tarzan of the Amazon

In 1976, at the age of 28, Kapax swam the length of the Magdalena River, a distance of over 1,000 miles. It took him about 5 weeks to do this. The Magdalena is a tributary of the Amazon River and Kapax, whose real name is Alberto Lesmes Rojas, was ahead of his time.

We are now accustomed to athletes doing extraordinary things to “raise awareness” for different causes. But Kapax isn’t from an area or a time where this type of thing was commonplace. In a tiny town in the Colombian Amazon in the mid 70’s it was unheard of.

Kapax had a European father and an indigenous mother. His father left when he was young and he was not able to attend school from that point on. He spent a lot of time watching black and white Tarzan movies at the small theater in Puerto Leguizamo, a small town along the banks of the river. He began going out into the jungle and practicing the moves he saw Tarzan do. As he grew, so did his notoriety. He felt a connection to the jungle and to the Amazonian river which grew stronger with time. Eventually he became known as the “Tarzan of the Amazon”. He became more and more concerned with the deforestation of the trees and the polluting of the river. This became an obsession which eventually drove him to do the swim which made him famous throughout the Amazon and surrounding countries.

Years ago, I traveled through part of the Amazon for a few days in a dugout with a couple of indigenous guys. Other than some rice they brought along, we caught and ate our food. I saw a way of life that was connected to water that I’d not even imagined. I’ve hoped to share a part of that with my daughter and wife for years- although maybe without the cloud of mosquitoes and the anaconda dinner cooked over a fire. Over the Thanksgiving holiday my family and I visited the town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. Leticia is across the river from Peru and sits half in Colombia and half in Brazil. It’s a wild, bustling frontier town.

Entering the small airport there’s a huge mural of Kapax in the forest. On the way to town there’s a huge statue of Kapax holding a giant snake. There are posters of him, magazines with his picture all over the place in all three countries, and everyone tells stories that seem to be half real and half shrouded in the mists of myth. I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of this famous waterman.

And then, on the third, day we saw him. The Tarzan of the Amazon was in our hotel chatting up a couple of ladies. Eventually he broke away and came to talk. He said a lot, including that my daughter should eat more so she’d have strength to dance. But then he said two things that showed why he’s such a legend”

“The most dangerous animal is man”.


“He who loves the river, protects it.”

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25 Nov
By: Supervisor 0

10th Anniversary of the Biggest Storm

I still remember how the water felt as I slogged down 16th street heading into the biting wind. How the grit had gotten in my water shoes and how saturated my skin felt after several hours in and out of the grimy water. The fear in my stomach as a transformer blew close by. Wondering  if the electricity could travel through the water to me. Trying to breathe and see through the thick smoke coming off of the huge fire burning at the Yacht Basin.

It seems like yesterday that I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine as I held on to he and his sister while walking chest deep in the grime next to their mom and pulling a rescue board piled with another sibling and a few belongings that they begged to bring along. Bringing them to high ground at Broadway and piling them into a waiting police car that would take them to the emergency shelter at Ball High school. Taking a moment to watch them drive off and grab an energy bar before heading to the next group a few blocks away.

Those of us that went through Hurricane Ike, and more recently through Hurricane Harvey, have memories like this ingrained into us that probably will never leave. It’s hard to believe that we’ve had another major event as we approach the 10th anniversary of the biggest storm that anyone alive remembers here.

A few years after Ike we had a city meeting to recap and use lessons learned to prepare for the next big event. As we went through the details it struck me how much better each group was prepared as a result of Ike and of what we’ve seen happen when other storms affected communities.  I also noticed how many new faces were in the room as opposed to the previous years. Charlie Kelly, who was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston at the time, mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. I’m sure lots were thinking the same thing in that room. The nice thing is that each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. Recently we went through the exercise of revamping our hurricane response plan for the Park Board. We’re trying to make it not only a document that is actually useful for all phases of a disaster, but something that will keep institutional memory alive for our successors.

In life guarding we train to eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue by practicing them until your body remembers even when your brain doesn’t. If you practice and internalize all the things you can control in advance, you are better able to handle the inevitable wrinkles that arise. Rescues, like hurricanes, never go according to plan. Best to be as prepared as possible so less is left to do on the fly. What works for organizations works in each of our personal homes and lives as well.

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