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.
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.
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
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
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.
The wind blew across the surface of the smooth surface of the Gulf of Mexico. After awhile little ripples
began to form. Then they combined to form tiny swells. The water molecules themselves didn’t move
far. Instead, they passed the energy from one to the next, and this energy moved through the water
causing these swells. It was like a mouse running under a carpet. The mouse moves, but the carpet itself
There was a lot of distance, or “fetch” in nautical terms, to travel. The little swells combined to form
larger swells that were farther apart. If you measured from the water’s surface to the top of the swells,
you’d have the “wave height”. If you measure the time it takes between the peak of each swell to pass a
stationary point you have the “wave period”. The more fetch the longer the distance these swells will
travel. The farther they travel, the more they start to organize and combine. They form larger swells that
are farther apart. Surfers look for a long period and a good size wave height. When these conditions
reach shore, you can have those big, clean, rolling swells that make great surfing waves when they
A wave breaks in approximately 1.3 times its height. So, in general a 3 foot wave breaks in 4 foot of
water. Wave height is typically measured from the base of the breaking side of the wave to the top. In
some places surfers measure from the back, but the trend seems to use the measurement of the front.
It may be less macho, but it’s more accurate. This is a great trick for boaters and lifeguards. If you see a
two-foot wave breaking in the middle of the bay or ocean, it’s probably only about 2 ½ feet deep there.
This is one of many techniques water people use to “see” the bottom by looking at the surface of the
By the time this particular wave train arrives in Galveston it has traveled a couple of hundred miles.
Depending on what kind of obstacles it encounters it will behave differently. If it spends its energy on a
sandbar it becomes a “breaking” wave. Depending on how steep the slope is it will break hard or gently.
If it hits a vertical or nearly vertical barrier it can form a “surging” wave. It will bounce up but won’t
actually break. An example would be right against the rock jetties or near a breakwater. If the water
doesn’t pass through it just kind of bounces back. Good to know when making a rescue by a breakwater
Waves are important to understand in our line of work. They can cause or contribute to rip currents,
inshore holes and bottom contour. To understand them means to understand how to use or work
around them during a rescue. Understanding waves is a crucial part of how to save lives for ocean
Fortunately, we are now in the position to run lifeguard patrols throughout the year. As the temperature cools, we’ll drive the entire beach front and, in addition to our lifesaving responsibilities, be able to devote attention to things like driving in prohibited areas, glass and alcohol enforcement, leash law enforcement, driving in sand dunes, and lots of other beach related issues. Hopefully this will take a little off the burden placed on the Galveston Police Department. Having a rescue truck out there already on patrol will also greatly increase our response time to water and medical emergencies in and around Galveston water.
Other than that we use the “slower” months to concentrate on rebuilding lifeguard towers and repairing/replacing needed signage of the 600 or so signs we maintain all over the island. We also use that slower time for the higher levels of training required of our full-time staff. For example, our new staff members are going to a certification course for “Swift Water Technician” this week and will be taking the Certified Tourism Ambassador course later this month. Additionally, we revise and improve training and administrative materials and try to burn off a bit of that vacation time that is hard to use during the busiest 9 months of the year.
Looking back over the past season, it was a tough one. Very large crowds and an extraordinary amount of rough water days kept us on our toes and sent some of our stats thought the roof. We seemed to be running at breakneck speed all season long and didn’t even get that late summer flat water that gives us some relief.
The big number that shows how busy we were is 175,080 preventative actions. In recent years we’ve traditionally hit somewhere just over 100,000. This year is the highest number we’ve ever recorded. This category measures how many times we advised people about or moved them from dangerous areas. It encompasses everything from the lifeguard swimming out and staying next to someone until they get to shore, to moving groups of people away from rocks on the loudspeaker in the trucks. It doesn’t include times we physically touch someone to bring them to shore, which is considered a rescue. We made 93 rescues this year which includes both rescues of swimmers and people who are boating. If we’re doing a good job of prevention that number will stay low, like it is this year.
Another big success was that we hit around 25,000 water safety talk contacts. This can be our school outreach program, or groups that show up on the beach that we intercept and give a safety talk.
We also made 582 medical responses and 627 enforcements. We often serve to filter out calls for EMS, Police, and Fire by handling minor things on site, so they don’t have to respond.
Finally, we reunited 179 lost children with parents, gave a few thousand tourists information about Galveston, provided 62 people help with vehicles, and a whole lot more.
The past week was a tough one. Not just for the families and friends of the people who died in the ocean, but for the first responders who worked the events. It’s hard enough for us as residents to hear about tourists and locals who drown in our beach waters, but when it involved children it adds a whole new dimension.
Children drowning on the beach is not a very common occurrence, either here locally or along our nation’s beaches. We in the drowning prevention community think more of backyard pools, ditches, or rivers when we hear about drowning deaths of people under 14 or so. Internationally the vast majority of drowning deaths occur among toddlers or kids 4-5 years of age. A momentary lapse in supervision for the younger or groups of young kids playing in packs around water is the common theme.
On the beachfront our main group that drowns are boys and young men, typically 15-30. So, when we have people outside of that group it hits hard, particularly if it involves children.
Our staff went through a lot this past week. And I must hand it to them, they performed admirably under very tough circumstances. After the event itself they spent long days searching along the shoreline, or on a personal water craft. Particularly tough was the water craft as they spent hours in cold, windy, rough conditions repeatedly combing the south jetty and the groins along the seawall. And they weren’t the only ones as the Galveston Police Department, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, US Coast Guard, Galveston Fire Department, Equisearch volunteers spend hours in boats, helicopters, 4wheelers and 4WD vehicles checking every inch of the beach front, jetties, and areas around the San Luis Pass. And we still haven’t located the missing 16-year-old.
Whether or not they acknowledge it, this takes a huge emotional toll on our community, including emergency response crews. But knowing you’re not the only group looking- the only group that cares and feels bad, means a lot. There is definitely a great team here in this county from the Emergency Operation Centers, dispatchers, first responders, and groups that provide emotional support.
The Jesse Tree and our Survivor Support Team are a constant help. They were stretched to the limit with these events. And the County Critical Incident Management Team is phenomenal. I was contacted in the middle of the flurry asking if we’d like them to come and work with our staff, which I took them up on. Last year I went with Beach Patrol and Jesse Tree staff to a certification course for group and individual critical incident stress counseling that they put on, which was excellent. Sunday morning they sent a team to our office to work with our staff. It seemed to really help and was a great way for our newer staff members to realize they are part of something much larger than Beach Patrol, and that they are supported by a whole community.
This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.
One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.
These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.
We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc.
New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them.
For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.
We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.
This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.
It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.
Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter. In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.
But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.
We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.
See you on the beach or in the water!
The next Beach Patrol year’s budget was just approved by the Park Board and there are a couple of very significant changes coming up.
When lightning comes in the area we walk a delicate balance between protecting the public and protecting the people who protect the public. Our policy, which meets national best practice, is to pull the lifeguards out of the towers when lightning is within 10 miles as we simultaneously warn the beachgoers. Protecting yourself from lightning when you’re on the beach means you get out of the water and off the beach. Don’t be a Ben Franklin! Seeking cover from lightning involves getting to an enclosed structure with plumbing. The second best thing is a closed vehicle. The worst thing you can do is stand under an umbrella or a tarp waiting for the danger to pass. Lots of beaches can clear the area quickly but this is Galveston and there are often hundreds or even thousands of people to clear. We do the best we can with whistles until the guard takes cover, and then we use the loudspeakers on the trucks. Sure the guards do the best they can to guard from nearby protection or vehicles, but this often means that people who choose not to heed the warnings are swimming without supervision until the lightning moves out of the area and the guards can get back in the tower.
Next year we are going to be able to put a couple of modern, esthetically appealing fiberglass towers on the beach. They will have windows and can be sealed up for inclement weather, which means we can work the guards in cold, wind, rain and worse. Shielding from the elements also greatly reduces fatigue. But the most important thing is they can be fitted with lightning rods so guards can safely protect people during times of lightning. We’ll try them out at 61st street and Stewart Beach because these are areas of high use. They are costly, but if they work out we’ll be looking at sponsorship opportunities or grant funding to see if we can figure out how to put more of them out there.
The other really great thing is we have been given the go ahead to hire four additional year round lifeguards! This will do wonders for establishing a career path and leadership pipeline. They will be our trainers as well as having specialized training such as flood rescue, diving, tourism relations, personal water craft rescue, and more. Some may go on to become peace officers. The big advantages though are that we can better address all the beach use we have during she “shoulder seasons” after and before the seasonal lifeguards are able to work. We can greatly increase how many kids we are able to provide water safety training to and hope to hit 20K. Additionally, after all these years we will be able to not only provide emergency response year round, but also patrol.
Big thanks to the Park Board and administration for helping us help beachgoers!