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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Winter goes quickly in Galveston. Before you know it, the beaches will be filling up again and we’ll start the cycle all over again.

We all make resolutions for the new year. We change our diet, commit to exercising more often, promise ourselves we’ll be more patient with difficult people or work environments, and basically try to will ourselves into being better people. And changing our path is a real, although difficult, possibility. The Dali Lama said something to the effect of right intention leads to right actions, which if practiced consistently leads to right being. You can, over time change your essence for the better. You can become a better person through discipline and consciously changing your actions.

We on the Beach Patrol also have annual resolutions and goals that we choose and focus on for the year. Just like you and I and most people, we try to keep doing the good things we do consistently and pick areas we think we should improve on and make them our focus. Many of these goals are embodied in our annual “business plan”, which all the Park Board departments do, and our board of directors approves/adopts for the coming year.

For us it usually boils down to setting goals that will ultimately prevent accidents. Many of them have to do with targeting areas that we can improve either our performance or focusing on segments of the population for public education.

One area we always want to improve on is how much we’re able to impact the youth. Our belief is that when young people know the basics of beach safety, they not only avoid accidents themselves, but they can also educate their peers, younger siblings, and even their parents. The schools have for many years been very supportive of our annual School Water Safety Outreach Program. A big part of this is we go out to the schools in the Spring and give water safety presentations to as many kids in the schools as we can. We focus on Galveston County, but have in recent years extended our net further. Our goal this year is to hit over 20,000 children. If these kids know how to avoid rip currents and other beach hazards they can spread that knowledge. We can create a sort of “herd immunity”, in which kids who are “inoculated” with information on how to be safe reduce the chances of drowning of not only themselves, but other kids and family members they’re with. We do the same for groups that show up on the beach.

Of course, we have many other goals related to administration, maintenance, communication, and productivity. But ultimately it all comes back to preventing aquatic accidents. And when you talk of prevention the key is to provide the tools and information for people to be able to take care of themselves and then be there ready to help with additional layers of protection and response when all else fails.

Veracruz

Early morning sunlight slanted off of the water as two parallel columns of potential guards jogged through knee deep water at Playa del Muerto in Boca Del Rio, Mexico. Mixed with the bird calls, sounds of waves and a slight breeze, was the raspy panting sounds of the group’s efforts.

Strain showed on the faces of many of the lifeguard candidates as they struggled to follow the whistle commands. One blast for start/stop. Two to start sprints from the back of the columns to the front. Multiple short blasts to switch columns. Early morning beachgoers, joggers, and vendors setting up for the day looked on as the went to deeper water, then back to the shallows, and up on the beach around obstacles. Galveston Beach Patrol Lifeguards Stephen Limones and Bill Bower joined a couple of experienced lifeguards to keep the columns in line and following the whistle commands I gave.

For almost 20 years Galveston has had a relationship with the “conurbada” (joined city) of Veracruz and Boca del Rio, Mexico. Years ago the head of Beach Patrol at that time, Vic Maceo, and I joined a delegation to our sister city. While there we noticed they had lifeguards covering their beaches, which were similar to ours in many ways. We walked down to talk to a lifeguard tower and met Juan Canananga, who ended up being a good friend of mine for many years. He introduced us to other guards who explained that they’d only started their lifeguard program the year before and were figuring out how to lifeguard based on two sources. The first was the many people in the area who were fishermen and surfers who understood the ocean’s intricacies. The second was an American television show called “Guardianes de la Bahia”, which we all know as “Baywatch”. They started the program because of the large numbers of drownings the year before. I don’t remember the number, but I do remember them telling us that they averaged about 35 drowning deaths a year. We found out that they had two new jet skis but didn’t have any formal training in swimming or lifesaving techniques. From there, lifeguards did what they do all over the world. We helped each other.

Our exchange program has lasted for close to two decades. We have gone down there and they’ve come up here. We taught lifesaving techniques and returned with knowledge that has helped us immensely related to Mexican and Latino culture, ways to collaboratively work with other public safety groups, and how to manage large tourist crowds. They see immense amounts of visitors and put a lot of resources into beach and tourist management. They’ve now dropped their average drowning rate 35 to 5 annually as a result of all of this.

This year was special because we co-taught with the newly formed National Mexican Lifesaving Federation, which we’ve been working collaboratively towards for over a decade. They will take the lead from here. But that’s a whole different story!

What Goes Around Comes Around

A man I know from the beach is a regular on the east end. He trolls regularly with his metal detector and sometimes pulls up some pretty cool stuff. These guys love it when we get a strong north wind which blows the water way out, particularly at low tide. On these days they can get to areas that are usually too deep to check under normal circumstances. We were chatting about this in a local restaurant and the conversation led to two pretty amazing stories.

A short time ago he was at east beach checking the area near the South Jetty. He was facing out to sea and standing in shallow water where a current was pulling towards the rocks while working his metal detector. A small form floated by right in front of him. He reached down and picked up a 3-year-old girl who would have surely drowned. When he got her out of the water and saw she could breathe still, she started crying loudly. Her mother charged him yelling and it almost got physical. She snatched her daughter out of his arms and to this day probably doesn’t realize he saved her little girl’s life.

The second story is set in the 80’s on the other end of the island at the San Luis Pass. The man, then in his early 30’s, went wade fishing with a friend. They were on the second sand bar when the friend suggested they go out to the 3rd sand bar. The man, who was the captain of his swim team in high school a decade earlier, got tired and started going under. He is a self-described “tough guy” who worked as a door man at bars and never pictured himself as someone who would panic. He remembers struggling, but not much else. Later he found out that he went under and when his friend tried to help him, he tried to climb up on his friend and they both almost drowned. Somehow, his friend was able to kick him away, regroup, and then managed to grab him and tow him back to the second sand bar. At that point they were barely conscious and barely able to maintain their heads above water even while touching bottom. Beach Patrol got to them before they gave up completely and brought them to shore.

The man refused medical treatment, but later that evening collapsed in his own home and was transported by EMS to the hospital. He ended up having to stay in the hospital for 3 weeks because water in his lungs led to severe pneumonia. After he recovered, he was always alert and cautious when around the water, which for him has been a big part of his life. The event also led him to be aware of his limits and respectful of the potential power of the ocean.

Because of all this, after he was rescued in the 80’s, he lived to rescue another person over 3 decades later.

South Jetty Rescue of Four Boaters

The icy wind blasted across the rocks as the two wetsuit clad figures picked their way gingerly across the algae and barnacle covered surface in the darkness. No moon showed to help. Waves and spray threatened to wash them away. Dain Buck had a headlight and Kevin Anderson had a waterproof flashlight tucked under the strap of his hood. They had rescue tubes clipped around their waist, wore lifejackets, and carried rescue fins and flairs. They made slow forward progress but had to stop periodically when waves washed across the jetty. Suddenly a cut in the rocks about 20 yards across appeared. Water rushed through. They stopped and huddled together to shout over the gale though frozen lips, strategizing. Time was critical.

4 men were caught in a strong frontal system and their boat swamped. The boat sank as it was pushed towards the South Jetty, and the men were able to scramble up and huddle behind a large rock. They called 911 and spoke with a dispatcher, who immediately alerted the Galveston Marine Response and US Coast Guard.

When Dain and Kevin heard the call, they did what Beach Patrol protocol dictates and tried to launch a 22 foot rescue boat from the Coast Guard base. Neither they nor the Coast Guard were able to launch smaller boats because of the condition of the sea. Coast Guard did send a larger boat out, which eventually was able to spot the men at the end of the jetty.

Coast Guard was requested to send a helicopter to lift the 4 men off the jetty. Dain and Kevin made the call to walk out the jetty, find the men and assess their condition, then radio the GPS coordinates to the Helicopter. They were not sure how long the men would last in the 36-degree windchill, made worse by being wet, exhausted, and exposed. But the helicopter was rerouted to another call. A second helicopter was then dispatched and shortly after cancelled for equipment problems.

Dain and Kevin used a Swiftwater technique using their rope to cross the cut one at a time. They eventually found that swimming next to the rocks was faster than walking, although they kept bumping into underwater rocks because they couldn’t get too far from the jetty without being blown out to sea. They found them, but without air support they knew they would not be able to bring the victims to shore.

Fortunately, Beach Patrol has a number of full-time guards who watch out for each other. Despite wind gusts of up to 45mph, Jeff Mullin and Kevin Knight made the bold decision to run a jet ski, which won’t swamp or be blown over like a boat, out right by the rocks in the protected area. Eventually, with the teamwork of Fire, EMS, and Police, and after a heroic effort taking more than 3 ½ hours, everyone got back to shore safely.

These heroes took some risks to get everyone to shore, but it paid off. The sea did not claim any lives that night.

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

Jellyfish

Last week one morning I was training. I was alternating racing rescue board legs, running, and swim legs. This time of year, working out is just maintaining skills and staying in decent shape for winter lifeguarding, so I was coasting along on my second swim thinking about something else, when I felt something I haven’t dealt with for a while. I felt little strings across my chest, down my belly, and down my legs. I wasn’t expecting it since we’ve had very few all summer. It was probably a Japanese Jellyfish, or “Sea Nettle”. The bad part is you feel the tentacles and there’s a gap before the pain starts. And you don’t know how bad it will get. This one was moderate but managed to find its way inside my suit, so maybe worse than moderate in select areas!

Jellyfish and man-o-war are more common in late summer although we typically have both year-round. If they are numerous, we fly a purple flag in addition to the red, yellow, or green condition flags on the back of the towers, at strategic locations on the seawall, and at the entrances to the beach parks. There are also flags at Jamaica Beach, in front of some hotels, and at a couple of sites on the Bolivar Peninsula. We post the daily flag colors on our website and you can sign up to get e-mail and text notifications to help you plan your beach day.

The current treatment for jellyfish in our part of the planet that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is saline. If you don’t have saline the next best thing is actual seawater. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the saline, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then rinse the area completely to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) that have not yet fired are gone. This will keep the sting from getting worse. A sting from a man-o-war or jellyfish can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the surface of the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get.

Another thing to remember about the jellyfish is that they, and their cousins the man-o-war, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The good thing is that overall, we’ve had a pattern of very few stinging critters for a couple of years, so you probably won’t have my bad luck!

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family

At our National Lifeguarding Championships in Virginia Beach I was suddenly hit with a moment of clarity that was close to a revelation.

Just like is often the case here in Galveston, there were so many things going on all at once. We had athletes from the Junior Guard program, U19, open, and age group competing. In addition to these incredibly talented athletes from 10 to 70+ years of age, we had a sponsor appreciation party, numerous events for the athletes, a celebration of life/ paddle out ceremony for several lifeguard chiefs who have recently passed away, and we had the privilege of giving out an award to a group of brave US Marines who saved a group of kids from drowning.

I was thinking about all of this, and it suddenly hit me what a comprehensive web we all collectively weave, both in Galveston, nationally, and internationally. Locally, we are so much more than a collection of beach lifeguards, and lifeguard support teams. We are a large, comprehensive safety net. And we are a family. The Galveston Beach Patrol Family. That family includes guards, Junior Guards and their parents, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, partner public safety groups, Park Board and City of Galveston departments, the media, the larger Galveston community and many more.

Many enter as very young children in the Junior Guard Program. They learn about the ocean, build an ocean and rescue skill set, and learn how to use it to help others. They may continue as guards, volunteers, athletes, coaches, sponsors, administrators, and more. Hundreds devote uncountable hours and energy to prevent accidents, save lives, educate the public, acknowledge service and heroism inside and outside of the family with our cousin groups, mentor newer and younger members, and to support each other in so many ways. This is way beyond what would or could be done out of a feeling of obligation or devotion to duty. This must be love.

We love the over 7 million people we protect annually. We love the environment we are so privileged to work in. And like a family, no matter how much we may disagree or argue or butt heads, we love each other. We understand the incredibly difficult role we all have in trying to keep people safe in an environment that is foreign to them, but that we thrive in. We know how hard you must work your entire life to maintain the conditioning and skills that allow you to be the rescuer and not the victim. We know how important even the briefest interaction with a tourist or local can be. And we know how much what you do to get people information on how to be safe before they ever get wet matters.

Thank you to each of you that play a part in the shared mission, and for choosing to be in The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family.

Hardworking Guards

Typically, the month of August sees some calm, hot weather. We’re now in the latter part of summer and things are still not dying down. We continue to have wind and current with some fairly strong rip currents near the rock groins. It has been calming down a bit and we’ve finally started seeing an occasional “green flag” day with calm water. Its been hot, but not overwhelmingly so on the beach since we still have a bit of a breeze.

What all this wind and rough water has done to us has been a mixed blessing. Rough water means the staff stays sharp. The guards move fast and are proactive. They keep people far from dangerous areas like near the rocks and piers. The supervisors stay alert, constantly moving and checking with the guards regularly. Dispatchers are quick to respond and are also proactive, often getting the guards in the field information before they even ask for it. By this time of the summer. But these are long, tense days. We have close calls all the time when guards go out for rescues and those who are not directly involved in backing them up have an agonizing wait until someone gets on the radio telling us “I got the OK sign”, or “Guard and victim are both back on shore”. Guards who work crowded, busy areas spend hours running back and forth from the shoreline or in the water back to the tower. They’re wet constantly. They’re sunburned and dehydrated from so much activity. All of this takes a toll.

Anyone who works in or around public safety organizations know that organizations are like people. Some stress is good. It increases performance, keeps staff involved and engaged, and facilitates teamwork. But too much stress or too long in the “zone” and all those good things go bad quickly. Responders can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and/or short-tempered. As an “organizational organism” an entire group can suffer from these symptoms. And for the Beach Patrol, all the close calls, emergencies, tragedies, long days, and environmental challenges can wear us out and cause us to crash if we don’t remember to relax and recharge. Staff will begin to squabble among themselves or start to find fault in their supervisors or managers. Some of this is normal and unavoidable. Our guards work really hard and perform really well, and that comes at a price.

Sometimes the remedy is as simple as a few calm, uneventful days to help us remember how nice it is to go to the beach for work every day. Other times we organize ways for the guards to interact together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company away from the pressures of work. Last week we had our final competition of the summer, which was the “beach flags” event. Picture musical chairs with hose, except with adrenaline charged super athletes wearing costumes. We also had our annual “Lifeguard Banquet” which a committee organized and involved food, awards, and a pinata.

Here’s to our hardworking guards!

San Luis Pass Rescue

Daniel Gutierrez and Cameron Larson eased the jet ski up to Bird Island, which sits in the bay very near the San Luis Pass cut. A couple of people were stranded on the island because their jet ski had been caught by a falling tide and was stuck on the island. They found out about the people just as they were about to leave after a long day on the “Pass Patrol”, so fortunately were out there after regularly scheduled patrol times. Suddenly they received a call on the radio about swimmers in distress on the ocean side of the pass.

As they raced under the bridge and towards the beach front, they scanned for signs of people offshore. On their headset they heard that the west end patrol unit was headed out there as well “code 3” (using lights and sirens to get there as quickly as possible). As they came around the bend onto the beach front, they spotted two swimmers who were swimming out from shore. As they came into range, they realized that these swimmers were headed even farther offshore in an attempt to rescue two swimmers that were starting to go under. They also noticed a beach patrol truck pulling up and a rescuer running into the water with fins and a rescue tube. From there things happened quickly.

Daniel drove the jet ski close to the first victim, doing a quick practiced turn maneuver which launched Cameron towards the man, using the wake wave to push him the rest of the distance. He saw out of the corner of his eye that Cameron successfully made contact with the man, who they guessed was between 250 and 300 pounds. But he wasn’t able to do much to help Cameron since he had an issue of his own to deal with. A distance away, the man’s son was starting to go under water. He sped towards the kid and grabbed him in the nick of time, swinging him up onto the rescue sled. Once he made sure the child was OK for the moment he checked to see if Cameron was OK, which Cameron verified by the universal lifeguard hand signal of forming an “O” by putting your hand on your head. He returned the signal, and brought the child to Karina Villamil, who was swimming out to assist. Next he raced to check the first two swimmers, but Mary Stewart had been able to use the PA system in the rescue truck to get them to swim back to shore. Once they were all safe on shore Daniel and Cameron realized the father and son that they rescued were two of the several hundred people they’d already removed from the water in the prohibited swimming area.

By the time the dust cleared late Sunday night, over the 4th of July holiday the Beach Patrol moved 22,430 people from danger, responded to 60 medical calls, rescued 8 people, and responded to one drowning fatality.