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Ship Channel Accident

This week we spend quite a bit of time on the water in the ship channel area helping the Coast Guard look for two people that were missing after a tragic boating. These types of searches often start out simply but end up going into all types of different worlds. When they happen, I’m always grateful for the privilege of having friends and colleagues in various parts of the broader safety net. One of the really nice things about being in a job like this for a long time is you get to develop relationships with some pretty evolved people.

Late in the afternoon I got a call from Louis Trouchesset with the Marine Division of the Galveston Sheriff Office, who is a key member of the Galveston Marine Response Team. He told me about the accident and said that they were not able to launch a boat because of the dense fog. With an hour of daylight left, my staff decided they could launch a jet ski and hug the rocks on the east side of the south jetty to see if they could locate one of the four people that were missing. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything. Coast Guard found two and then searched throughout the night with their larger boat, using radar and GPS to navigate. The Galveston Police Department was able to get out there as well for much of the night. The next morning, we provided a lifeguard to Louis in the county boat and searched throughout the day alongside them using jet skis.

Louis will hate that I write this about him because he’s not the kind of guy that ever seeks out attention. But he is one of the more impressive people I’ve had the privilege of working with. He is incredibly knowledgeable about marine law enforcement and basically everything else to do with boats or ocean. In addition, he’s really a smart guy and sees both the larger picture and things other people miss, especially around the water. Exposure to him and the way he works is invaluable training for my staff.

Louis and I have worked with another extraordinary person in the Coast Guard on a number of different things. Caren Damon is an example of the quality that rises to the top in a system like that. She’s amazing with families in crisis among lots of other things. When she asked for a space to brief and provide counseling to the victims’ families, I immediate called David Mitchel with the Jesse Tree.

David is a highly creative social services guru who knows everything and everyone. He has attracted a group of volunteers for our Survivor Support Network program who are compassionate, energetic, dedicated and fun, just like him. They arranged for a room at Moody Methodist within a couple of hours.

All these friends and organizations going to such lengths for others, along with my unbelievable staff who enthusiastically spent hours in the cold and wet, are a source of constant inspiration.

Fisherman Rescue

Sometimes rescues are not as dramatic as they are interesting.

A couple of days before Christmas we received a direct call from a local resident who was worried about his son right as the sun was setting. He called our main number which automatically rolls over to our “on call” phone when no one is in the office. His son, who was in his late teens, had been out duck hunting on the north side of the San Luis Pass since early in the day. He waded out to an island that was about a quarter mile from shore, but the tide had filled in and the gut he’d walked across was now overhead with a strong current running through it.

Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Supervisor Josh Bailey headed out to The Pass. They were finally able to locate the vehicle the victim had driven in after it was all the way dark. They were able to communicate with him by phone and he used a combination of a flashlight and firing his shotgun to help them find him.

After careful consideration they decided to have Josh go for the guy and Austin to stay on shore in case they needed to call for more help. Josh donned his wetsuit and a headlight, grabbed a waterproof radio, and headed out using a combination of wading and paddling a rescue board.

When Josh got to the island, he found the fisherman in good spirits. He was painted up in camouflage paint and wore a camo outfit with waders. He had a backpack loaded with supplies, a shotgun, and a string of duck decoys. He said he was thinking about just eating some food he had brought and sleeping until the next low tide, but was afraid that the tide would cover the island when it filled all the way in. He was worried that he couldn’t make it across the gut, where the tidal flow had carved out an area that was well overhead. As Josh paddled him in with all the little decoys following them like a mama duck, he was joking around but was happy to be rescued by a “rescue swimmer”.

We’ve rescued many people, and even a cow, out there when the conditions and the sandbars change rapidly. Something that seems so simple, like wading out to a shallow sandbar, can turn deadly quickly.

I don’t know the guy that was rescued. But I know some things about him just by reading the rescue report. For such a young guy he’s very smart and/or experienced. He knew his waders could fill and drown him, as has happened to countless people fishing over the years. He was also really smart to be so prepared with a flashlight, food, and a charged cell phone.

Taking some simple precautions, thinking out a course of action carefully when the situation changed, and not being too proud to call for help when needed was the difference between a potential tragedy and an interesting story.

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.

Rest in Peace Bob Burnside

“Bob you know you’re not supposed to smoke in this house!”, Annette said as she walked up and reached out to take his cigarette out of his hand. He pivoted in his chair, crazy blue eyes meeting her concerned look, and ever so slowly blew a cloud of smoke in her face without looking away. He then went back to his work.

I was somewhere between being appalled and choking back laughter as Bob Burnside returned to hammering on his poor laptop while telling me what I was doing wrong as the USLA President. He was worked up- something to do with politics. We had come back from a morning of skiing and were sitting together over some lunch. I almost said something about the smoke assault, but instead took my lead from Annette and let the crusty 86-year-old legend alone. It was probably a little too late to change anyway.

Retired LA County Lifeguard Chief Bob Burnside has passed away at 87. He was a “Lifeguard’s Lifeguard” who was the First President of the National Surf Life Saving Association of America, which later became the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and has been a tireless advocate for lifesaving and drowning prevention among American lifeguards and elsewhere. Because of concerns of the danger of using metal rescue cans, he invented the “Burnside Rescue Can” that many lifeguards use today. Along with legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku, he organized and was part of a team that accepted an invitation in 1956 to attend a surf carnival sponsored by Surf Life Saving Australia. The U.S. team brought rescue buoys, rescue tubes, and Malibu balsa surfboards, which revolutionized surfing in Australia. Many years later the Australians adopted rescue tubes as a primary rescue device.

He was a phenomenal athlete who held world titles in bodysurfing and was a top-level competitor in national lifeguard and downhill skiing events (he skied for the first time upon his retirement at 50). He offered training and support to lifeguards in Mexico, living there for an extended period, and created a fund that continues to support Mexican lifesaving. In 2014 he was awarded the Paragon Award for Aquatic Safety by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Bob was sharp, witty, inclusive, and no topic was off limits. In our world of lifesaving he was not at all shy about offering advice and suggesting course corrections. But even when he criticized, it was done in such a way that you felt supported.

Most importantly, he was the spiritual leader for many of us in USLA and a tireless advocate for unity and progress. Bob was a personal friend and mentor to me, and I’ll really miss his advice and support. What an incredible life he lived! Full of love and completely without fear. I hope we can continue to follow his example of enjoyment of life, altruism and unification.

Rest in Peace Bob Burnside. You will be missed, but your legacy lives on, as it is woven into the very fabric of so many of our lives.

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!

What Goes Around Comes Around

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Dangers

We’re in our typical crazy winter Galveston pattern of weather now, so there are some important things to be aware of when on the water.

With recent water temps in the 60’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. This week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person in a reasonable time frame. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a few miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water! But with the proper precautions and equipment this is one of the best times of the year to get out there to enjoy your favorite activity on the water. Its uncrowded and beautiful. And this there’s no better way to connect with nature and disconnect from the daily grind.

South Jetty Rescue of Four Boaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

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

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

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

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

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