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Easter Weekend

We’re already to Easter, which for many is the real kickoff for beach time.

We know its Easter because John’s Beach Service is about to roll out hundreds of umbrella and chair set ups for the first time of the year at Stewart Beach. Max Wilson, with help from his brother, Walter, has run this business for decades and has been gradually transferring it to his nephew, Matt Wilson. This is an old style, first class business, and they do it well. They don’t set up before Easter because for such a large operation the weather is too fickle. If 20 canvas get wet its not such a big deal to lay them out to dry. But for John’s Beach service, finding a time and place to lay out 3-500 umbrellas is another story. When you’ve been in business for 50 years you learn to treat customers right, so they come back year after year. So, we’ve come to see the umbrellas up at Stewart beach as the official start to busy beach time.

Easter Weekend is usually a huge holiday, sometimes it’s the equivalent of Labor Day Weekend. But unlike Labor Day, we have additional challenges like higher wind and waves, colder water, and higher “Spring Tides”. So be sure and pick an area near a lifeguard and stay far away from any structures like groins and piers. Also be alert for both hypothermia in the water and heat exhaustion on the land. Don’t swim at the ends of the island, remember drinking and swimming is a bad combination, and don’t swim alone. We’ve got all 300 of our signs up on the beach with additional info on each tower, so be sure and look around for danger warnings. Of course, talk to the guard if in doubt.

Helping us out with be our 14 new “Wave Watchers”, who graduated from their academy a week ago. After 20 hours of content related to Beach Patrol operations, Wave Watcher procedures, currents and structures, search and recovery, and common marine life injuries, they’re loaded with information. And that doesn’t count the certifications they all earned as Certified Tourism Ambassadors and CPR/AED. You’ll spot them with their signature navy blue shirts, ID tags, bush hats, and whistles up and down the beach. Our seasoned Wave Watchers have already been out there giving us extra eyes, moving swimmers, treating minor first aids, and letting people know what the hazards are. Now we’ll double the number of WW force multipliers out there keeping us informed and safe.

There is a vote coming up to renew the parking fees on the seawall, so be sure and get out there to vote your conscious. The city has done a good job of making sure that money is set aside to maintain the beach amenities. For my part, I’ve been impressed how the improvements on the seawall look, and I’m hoping we can renew that vote in order to maintain all the good things happening on the beach front and keep the momentum going.

Sea of Swimmers

The sea of swimmers looks like mullet swimming all over each other. The start of the triathlon is hard to guard as waves of over 100 swimmers start every 5 minutes. Beach Patrol lifeguards, Police, Sheriff Deputies, along with other groups in kayaks, Jetskis, and boats watch over the masses, trying to pick out the ones that are tired, get cramps, panic, or have sudden medical issues during the swim. Some 70 or 80 require minor assistance and a handful are brought quickly to shore to be checked out by EMS. The Galveston Police dive team is suited up and ready, just in case.

This Sunday, April 7th is the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 Texas. The event is based at the perfect venue for a triathlon, Moody Gardens. Triathletes typically come with a full entourage of family and friends. They usually have some degree of disposable income and like to visit local attractions before and after the race. Most importantly, they like the logistics to be simple. I remember many times coming into a new town for a race and, on top of the normal pre race jitters, having to navigate large cities to find the swim area, bike and run course, and different transition areas. At Moody Gardens its one stop shopping. On Galveston Island, it’s easy to find your way around, find parking, and enjoy all that our amazing venue has to offer.

We’re looking at around 3,000 athletes, along with all their entourage. Sports tourism is a growing industry and triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports around.

This is a “Half Ironman”, so involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. Not for those who aren’t really trained up!

The Beach Patrol and the Police Department Marine Division’s dive team work closely to provide water security. We work a sort of zone defense strategy. Lifeguards on rescue boards are placed strategically throughout the course with Lifeguard Supervisors on Jet Skis covering zones. The Police boat protects the race from boat traffic and is ready to dive for someone if the need arises. Using a system of whistles and hand signals rescues are made and tired swimmers are removed from the water. Every racer is tracked by an identifying number and a chip. EMS, Police, and volunteer crews coordinate emergencies, aid, and logistical support through a central dispatch. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to support racers and minimize risk.

There are some inconveniences on the road parts of the race, particularly the bike. Fortunately, our Galveston Police Officers who plan and work the event are pro’s, as are the city crews who handle all the details of making the roads safe for everyone. So, it really minimizes the impact on traffic and the community.

But ultimately this is a great event for the island. When these thousands of sports tourists head home, they will spread the word. Galveston is a fantastic place to visit and has something for everyone.

Hypothermia

In last week’s column I mentioned the danger of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver, he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may just be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia.

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases, you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water is warming up into the 60s, and soon will be comfortable for swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Do You Have What It Takes?

At 7am in the morning a group of swimmers stand near the pool getting a briefing. In groups of 10 they enter their assigned lanes and swim 10 laps, which is 500 meters. About half of them make it under the required time. These are interviewed and take a drug test. Those that make it through all three phases qualify for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol Lifeguard Academy.

When I started as a lifeguard back in 1983, there was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work. We’ve come a long way since then and now have a comprehensive training course that is over 90 hours long. And we pay those who qualify to attend!

Next Saturday, March 9th, is the first of two tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. We will have an academy over Spring Break and another in May. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. They are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, Gulf Coast ecology and marine life, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits, we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members, who are all medical and lifesaving instructors, there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when they complete the training.

So, for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I tried out all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they prevented people from getting hurt or worse. Not many people have the privilege of reuniting lost family members or treating people who are hurt. Not many people can say that they saved a life as part of their job.

Joe Max Taylor

The annual “Disco Dog Party” was in full swing when one of the guards paddled up on a board to the tip of the south jetty wearing full disco regalia. Hot dogs were cooking, music was playing, and lifeguards were dancing to KC. The guard said he’d paddled up in the dark to a boat that was shark fishing and asked if they’d seen a “disco party anywhere out here”. What we didn’t know is that the shark fisherman was also a state senator and that he was immediately on the marine band radio calling the Coast Guard.

I found myself in Sheriff Joe Max Taylor’s office first thing Monday morning being dissected by those steely blue eyes. 30 years later this seems pretty funny, but at the time I was absolutely terrified. I don’t think I could have put three words together in a coherent fashion but fortunately I didn’t have to.

“Son, did you have a good time last night?” He said somewhere between annoyed and amused. “Y-Yessir”, I croaked. “Gunna happen again?” “No sir.” “Get out of here and go save someone then.” he said with a hint of a smile. I didn’t know he even knew who I was, but later I realized he knew I was young and dumb and making some less than perfect choices. But he also knew I had good water skills, worked hard, and was always willing to step up when needed. He knew everything about everyone but seldom let on. He was brilliant and shrewd and would support his “family” with all his considerable power.

A few years later I sat in a meeting with he and Vic Maceo, the head of the Beach Patrol at the time. Vic was a Major and I was a Lieutenant with the County but were under contract to manage the Beach Patrol. Beach Patrol was still under the Sheriff Office direction, although it was funded by the Park Board using primarily hotel tax money. We were in the budget process and Beach Patrol was about to take a big hit. Joe Max stood up at the beginning of the meeting and essentially went around the board table talking about each person, telling anecdotes. He didn’t say anything bad about anyone, nor do I remember him talking directly about the money grab, but he did say a couple of things about how good a job we did on the beach and how important our department was. We walked out of there with an intact budget and a sweaty board of directors thanks to his mere presence supporting us in that meeting.

I learned much about politics, true power, having vision, real leadership, and supporting extended “family” from him.

Joe Max Taylor was a visionary who quickly saw how beneficial incorporating the Beach Patrol into the Sheriff Office would be for both sides. He was an enormous part of why the Beach Patrol is what it is today, and we will be eternally grateful for his support and guidance.

Foggy Days

Sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, the small pack of surfers could barely make out the dark silhouette of the rock groin. The heavy fog and lack of wind made for an eerie scene. They could hear voices from surfers at the next groin and from people walking on the beach, even when they were speaking in normal conversational tones.

One surfer saw a dark mass looming in front of her and spun around to paddle into a wave. She popped up and cut down the smooth, opaque glass. She could feel the spray beating on her wetsuit and hear the hoots of the other surfers as if they were right next to her. Suddenly the rocks appeared before her. She kicked out and the rip current by the rocks pulled her back out to the lineup.

Having so much moisture in the air can be a bit unnerving because the water in the air conducts sound more than on a normal day. But surfing in the fog can be a great experience. Typically, on these days there isn’t a ton of wind and the air is fairly warm. Spring on the Texas coast can often be foggy, as the colder winter water interacts with the warmer air.

But fog can be dangerous because it’s so easy to get disoriented. On days where the sun doesn’t show through and there’s not a prevailing wind direction, once you’re outside of the surf line there are no references. Its easy to think you’re paddling to shore when you’re headed out to sea. A few of us train and race on something called a “surf-ski”, which is essentially a long, skinny kayak designed for the ocean. I learned years ago to always have a compass on my watch for times when a fog bank rolls in and I’m offshore. It only takes getting caught 2-3 miles offshore once to never forget a compass again.

For lifesaving, fog has special challenges. Even the simplest things can be complicated. This week we had to walk out on the groins to see what the surf conditions were, so we could set the flag color. Later in the spring we’ll have at least a few days were our trucks have to stop and walk out on each jetty to make sure there are no people getting close to the rocks. The other night we responded to a call where someone thought flares were set off in Offatt’s Bayou. It was so foggy our Supervisor couldn’t see anything. And the only boats that can search need to have radar and a GPS, and even then need to be extremely careful.

Fog is just another reminder how the winter months present challenges when going in the or on the water. The main thing to remember is that because there is less of a safety net and more things that can go wrong, you need to plan carefully in advance and take more safety precautions than normal.

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Workout

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

“Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate and Train”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice work Josh! 

 

Water Safety

Before you get to beach safety, there are a number of precautions that should be in effect. They are like the stepping stones you take before you even get to the point where you would swim in the surf. Water Safety USA is a national group composed of 14 of the major players involved in water safety and drowning prevention. Some of the groups involved include the Center for Disease Control, Corps of Engineers, YMCA, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, National Swimming Foundation, American Pediatric Society, Coast Guard, etc. I sit on this group as a representative of the open water lifeguards, the United States Lifesaving Association. 

With Water Safety USA one of the main things we’ve been working to achieve is common ground for water safety messaging. So we’ve been working towards coming up with shared messages that we all have in common. However, it’s not enough to give the same message different ways. We, as much as possible, are trying to use the same wording for messages we share so as not to confuse the public. One of the hard things about public water safety messaging in the USA is that there are so many groups putting out different messages. Sometimes it conflicts and sometimes the message is the same but we say it in such a different way that it’s confusing. We’ve so far agreed on a message about learning to swim, wearing lifejackets, and designating a “water watcher”. Learning to swim is really about swimming to survive, not about competitive swimming. But, as they say, swimming is the only sport that will save your life, so the focus is on getting to safety. Wearing lifejackets when boating or when in or around the water for non-swimmers and children is pretty obvious, but it also involves wearing the right kind of lifejacket. The wrong kind of lifejacket can float you face down, so that’s not too useful for non-swimmers or unconscious people. A water watcher is a term used for a person designated to have the sole responsibility of focusing on the people in the water. An example is if there is a pool party, one adult is always keeping an eye on the kids who are swimming. The adults could trade out but someone is always assigned to do that and just that. Talking, playing on the phone, or doing anything that could distract is not OK. 

All of these apply to going to the beach as well, but then you additionally would add things like swimming near a lifeguard and avoiding rip currents, which in our case here in Galveston typically mean not swimming near rock groins or piers.  

The plan for Water Safety USA is to continue looking for common themes, but we’re starting another, larger project as well. We’re starting work on a national water safety plan. Many of the developed nations have one, so there are plenty of resources out there. The goal is define strategies and set targets to reduce the amount of drownings we see in our country each year.