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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.

Paint by Numbers

Despite all the crazy weather, the swim part of the Triathlon went off pretty well. The team of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Police Department Marine Division Dive Team, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Ironman crew, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Kayak club, collectively got nearly 3,000 athletes safely back to shore. All told there were 47 rescues, 87 swim assists, and two medial interventions for respiratory issues.

Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts to this and a great deal of coordination is required. Special kudos go to Lieutenant Mike Reardon, who was our incident commander for the whole three ringed circus. It’s a stressful job, but with his over 40 years working with the Beach Patrol, and a previous life as the head nurse for the John Sealy Emergency Room, he is more than up for the task.

On another topic, someone with a special connection to the Galveston beach passed last week at 93 years of age. Dan Robbins, the father of “paint by numbers” found something special in Galveston. He came up with the idea in the 50’s while working at Palmer Paints on kids’ painting sets. He heard that Leonardo Da Vinci used numbered background patterns in his work, used this idea to put together kits for adults. This idea met fertile ground at the time of the “do it yourself generation” where “everyman” could fix a house, repair a car, or even paint a painting.

In the late 90’s Dan and his son were working on a book called “What Ever Happened to Paint by Numbers?”. They had it pretty much finished but were looking for a way to wrap it up. They needed a final chapter. But they heard about something going on in Galveston that sounded intriguing.

After a couple of years working in New York as the Art Director for a nonprofit, I moved back to Galveston to try to do a large public art project. Working with my Mom who was with the school district, artists Jane Young and Mike Janota, Sid Steffens (educator), Vic Maceo, Rhonda Greg as Project Coordinator, Maureen Patton and the Commission on the Arts, and 14,000 kids, artists, and volunteers, we’d just completed a 2 ½ mile long paint by numbers project on the seawall.

Dan was floored when he and his son arrived. I met he and his son at a restaurant and then we drove the entire mural from 25th to 61st street. He loved seeing his original idea on such a grand scale. He also instantly loved Galveston and all the people he met while here.

Here in Galveston was a community that embraced a project that was a larger than life manifestation of his life’s work. If he hadn’t done what he did in the 50’s, the paint by numbers concept wouldn’t be woven into our collective consciousness. It would never have occurred to me or countless other artists to use paint by numbers as a way to allow easy access to large art projects.

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.

Wave Watchers

The lifeguard at tower 61 was getting a little overwhelmed.  She was moving as fast as she could but the current kept moving swimmers towards the dangerous area by the rocks. She barely had time to move swimmers and get back to her tower before jumping back down. As she climbed up to her tower, she heard a whistle. She looked down and was relieved to see a man wearing a blue shirt blowing a whistle to remind swimmers to stay out of danger.

The dispatcher checked the Beach Patrol cell phone and saw that the special app had a couple of new notifications on it. One of the Wave Watchers had been on the way to fish at the San Luis Pass and noticed a bunch of people in the water. Another was riding his bike along the seawall and saw a bus full of small children in swimming gear pull up at an area without a lifeguard. The dispatcher called the area supervisors for the west end and the seawall and let them know.

On the 4th of July weekend, the frantic parents of a lost 3-year-old child ran down the beach yelling for assistance. The tower lifeguard in the area asked them what was wrong, and they said they had lost sight of their child. After a quick check on the radio the lifeguard referred them to the big tent behind the next tower, which was the designated place for the “Lost Child Detail”. When the parents approached, they found a woman in the distinctive blue “Wave Watchers” shirt sitting with a lifeguard. Both were using beach toys to play with several children, including the lost 3-year-old.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy which is free of charge. The Wave Watcher team serves as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Academy is free of charge and will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, as well as beach safety. Attendees will receive certifications in both CPR and as Certified Tourist Ambassadors.

Once through the Academy, Wave Watchers will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”. They can spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us, or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement is completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome.

We have an academy starting April 8-12 from 8-12am. We need you to join our team and our lifesaving family!

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.

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.

Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that  there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.

Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.

Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.

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.