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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.

Winter Days

I love a lot of things about Galveston. These magic winter days where the rest of the country is freezing, and our beaches are full of people are a reminder of how good we have it in our little corner of the planet. This year has been especially beautiful.

For us, this is a time of renewal. We rebuild towers, set signs, revise policies, and work on longer term projects. All the things we can’t do while we’re going full steam during the season. We are briefly given time to breathe and reflect on the things we’re thankful for. Here is my list in no particular order:

1. Living and working in Galveston- Where else can you get almost anywhere within 20 minutes, not have to make dinner or movie reservations, and have to work to not see the beach at least a couple of times a day. And G—town is still big enough to get whatever you need right on the island.

2. City and Park Board- I always feel gratitude when I work with other lifeguarding groups in Texas, the Great Lakes, and the East and West Coast. The Park Board and the City of Galveston has provided a way for the Beach Patrol, as the official lifeguard group for the city, to use hotel tax revenue for the bulk of our operational expenses. Very few lifeguard services around the country and world operate this way and its really benefited our beach visitors. In the time since I started, we moved from 17 employees and one full time person to 14 full time people and a staff size of well over 110 during the height of the season. Its never enough, but we are able to make around 200,000 preventative actions a year, keeping over 7 million people away from dangers that could hurt or even kill them. We deeply appreciate being given the tools to do this good work.

3. Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) Volunteers- Despite all our efforts and help from other groups, there are inevitably times when people slip through the safety net and die in our waters. The SSN is always available with support for the families in the form of translators, councilors, or merely someone who listens. They bring food and shelter, find hotel rooms, work with consulates to contact family, and are a link to other public safety groups.

4. Wave Watchers- What can you say about people that volunteer their time to be trained and then to patrol our beaches during times or at areas where we don’t cover. This dedicated support group has quickly become indispensable in our world.

5. Galveston Marine Response- The spirit of cooperation between fire, police, EMS, and lifeguards is something rare here on the island, but nowhere is it more evident than how we respond to water emergencies.

6. Beach Patrol Staff- Their dedication, caring and energy are a continual source of awe and renewal for me. I have no words to express my gratitude.

Rip Currents

Over the past few years a pretty vibrant dialogue going on worldwide related to rip currents and how to best keep people safe around them has been taking place. As you all (hopefully) know, a rip current is a channel of water moving away from shore resulting from waves, current and bottom topography. In Galveston they mostly occur near structures like piers or jetties. In Galveston, the USA, and in Australia approximately 80% of all surf rescues occur as a result of rip currents, so they’re the big dog when it comes to beach safety education.

In my work here and in my volunteer roles as President of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and the Secretary General of the Americas Region of the International Lifesaving Federation I’ve been involved in quite a bit of this dialogue. I also had the privilege over the past decade or so of representing the USLA in a task force that worked with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, to come up with and improve upon a public education campaign about rip currents.

A Texas A&M researcher named Chris Houser did a pretty interesting study in Galveston and elsewhere. What was so groundbreaking about this particular study is that it wasn’t just focused on how rip currents work (where they exist and under which conditions, how fast they go, etc). He focused instead on something lifeguards care deeply about- what are peoples’ perceptions of what areas are safe and/or dangerous and how do we get the word out most effectively. He came up with some very interesting conclusions.

In a nutshell, only 13% of beachgoers that were surveyed could correctly identify a rip current. 87% of people preferred to swim in areas that had no waves breaking because they thought they were calm and safe. These areas are calm because no waves are breaking as a result of the rip current pulling the sand out. Also, only a third of those interviewed felt they could swim over 100 yards.

He mentioned that Galveston provides a lifeguard service that basically keeps people away from rip currents, but with most people visiting the beach not knowing which areas are safe and not being able to swim well, we definitely have our work cut out for us! Last year alone we moved around 200,000 people away from dangerous areas, the majority of which were rip currents near the groins and tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and the Galveston Ship Channel.

All this boils down to some very simple advice for you and your family when you visit the beaches in Galveston. Swim near a lifeguard so you have a trained set of eyes to catch it if you get too close to dangerous areas. Also, observe signs, flags, and warnings put out by the Beach Patrol and the National Weather Service.

Wishing you all safe holidays from everyone at the Beach Patrol!

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!

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.

Change Overtime

A group of 17 stood in the sand outside of a green and white trailer at Stewart Beach. Their feet were so dark they had a greenish tint against the white sand because they worked with minimal sun protection. Walkie talkies were issued as they joked around and made plans for after work.

In 1983 we only had 17 lifeguards on staff. We made $2.75 an hour and worked 6-7 days a week. New guards moved around, but guards with more experience primarily worked one tower and were assigned the more challenging ones. There were no formal lunch breaks. Instead, you took a quick break if you felt no swimmers would get in trouble. Most of us brought our lunches. There was not enough sand on the seawall for people to use lots of the areas, so we only covered about a third of the groins. Most of the crowd was at Stewart Beach and Apffel Park (now “East Beach Park”). There was no formal lifeguard training academy, you learned from other guards as you went along. Because of the lack of coverage we made a ton of rescues, especially when working the mobile patrols. We also broke up lots of fights and dealt with many more drowning fatalities than we do now.

Stewart Beach was the heart of the beach life for us. Not only was that where we started and ended each workday, but things were booming. There were two huge clubs on the beach that had live rock music. Some of us worked as bouncers after our lifeguarding shift. There were bumper boats, go carts, two water slides, little vendor shacks on the sand, miniature golf, and more. A lot of us would go to the blues bar at one of the water slides after work and hang with the local crew, bikers, and whatever tourist was brave enough to wander in.

The changes from then to now are significant. We have about 100 more guards on staff and cover every groin, for many of which we provide a double shift and work till dark. Guards have a set lunch break and reasonable hours so they can stay sharp and attentive. A formal academy and daily training ensures consistency, professionalism, and reduced liability for the city. We also provide both patrols and emergency response 2/7/365. And we make over 200,000 preventative actions a year instead of waiting to react to a crisis.

So maybe its not as fun now as then. But now we have quick backup for the guards when they get into the life-threatening situation of making a rescue. We work in tandem in the trucks more of the time, so our Supervisors are able to watch each other’s backs. And we don’t leave the public unprotected during working hours.

The thinner you stretch your resources, the more risk for guards and the public. One important measure of success is, because of our level of resources, we now average, with 7 million tourists, 6 drownings instead of 18-25 annually.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

Late in the day on Sunday, September 29th two young women entered the water underneath the Pleasure Pier. It was a very rough day with red flag warnings and rip current advisories, and the beach was crowded with thousands of swimmers in the water. This late in the year we didn’t have enough guards to staff tower 25.

The two women stepped into a deep area caused by the interaction of the current and posts and were swept out by a strong rip current. They flailed in the water panicking. One was able to grab a barnacle encrusted post in a bear hug and keep herself above water. The other tried to make it to the next post and repeatedly tried to climb up, ripping the skin off her fingertips and getting sliced by the barnacles. She started to go under and began to “climb the ladder”, meaning she was actively drowning and ineffectively throwing her arms out in front of her to catch one more breath.

Supervisors Michael Lucero and Mary Stewart were both at tower 24 checking with the lifeguard, Matthew Sicilio, when they saw a familiar figure in a blue shirt waving them over. Carlos Guerra, one of our most active volunteer Wave Watchers was patrolling the area and spotted the two women in trouble. On the way the police dispatcher said they’d received multiple 911 calls and were sending the Galveston Marine Response group (fire, police, and EMS). They arrived to find a large crowd yelling and pointing but no one could actually see either of the two women.

Lucero grabbed his rescue fins and tube and ran under the pier as Stewart assumed “Incident Command”. She directed Lifeguard Matthew Sicilio to run from his tower at 24 and help Lucero. Lucero then “dolphin dove” to the east side and then used the same rip current that sucked the women out. But for him it was a way to get quickly away from shore. He looked back to see Carlos using Beach Patrol signals to direct him to the victims, who were under the pier and hard to spot. He found the first one hanging on the post and saw the second one trying ineffectively to latch on to the next post out. He asked the first woman if she could hang on a little longer. When she said she could and told him where her friend was, he swam farther out and got to the second woman just as she submerged for the final time.

Matthew Sicilio and long-time surfer Erich Schlegel swam out to help. Matthew ended up taking the second victim in and Erich helped make contact and then helped Lucero bring the first victim to shore. They turned the two women over the fire and EMS on shore as the police provided crowd control. One was transported to the Emergency room in stable condition.

This was really close. Many threads of our larger safety net had to come together to save these two women.

Public Safety

Dropping off the seawall heading west on 3005 I spotted a man lying in the middle of the road. Two other guys were attempting to help him up and pull him to the side. There were a couple of cars parked all crazy on the side of the road. The man was bleeding on his legs and arms. Thinking a car had hit the guy, I pulled over and put on my overhead lights, called for EMS, Fire, and Police backup, grabbed my trauma kit, and stepped out to the group while pulling on latex gloves.

Surprisingly, no one had hit the man. The two cars were Good Samaritans who pulled over to help the guy. He told me he had tripped and fallen. As I evaluated him, I saw no evidence of intoxication, he was wearing old and unwashed clothing, and he was oriented for the most part, aside from thinking he was in Bolivar. The cavalry arrived, blocked traffic more effectively, and EMS ran some tests. While that was going on, a firefighter began helping me clean and bandage his wounds, some of which were several days old. We also cleaned what looked to be old dried excrement off his legs. There were probably 10 of us there in total and to a person everyone was supportive and respectful to this poor guy. Galveston Police Department Sergeant Nick McDermott even stayed after everyone left when the man refused transport and helped try to make sure the guy ended up somewhere safe, Nick was off duty and headed home but probably spent 45 extra minutes out there.

Last week I stopped to help a woman who was stranded on 3005 and Pabst Road. She had two young children in the car and was having a hard time dealing with them and figuring out what to do. As I attempted to jump start the vehicle, GPD Sgt. Sean Migues pulled up and asked if he could help. Long story short, he not only helped but volunteered to drive the woman and her children to her house when we were unable to get the car started. He was respectful and helpful to her and basically took charge of the kids. Way beyond the call of anything that would be expected. This is not unusual for him but is merely the latest in a long line of things I’ve noticed him doing in the field. Sean is a former Beach Patrol Supervisor/Officer and was a marine who at one time was assigned on the President’s personal protection detail.

In Public Safety, the big rescues and emergencies are important and garner public attention. But it’s the little day to day kindnesses that truly serve the public and make or break our organizations. We see the spectacle when some of us don’t do the right thing in the media, but often forget to notice the good that happens every day with the vast majority of first responders. Galveston is very lucky to have good leadership and good people in all our public safety groups.

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!

Open Water Swimming

As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.

This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of saltwater will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave, so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally, a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little, you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.