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Preventative Actions

For us, the big measure of how much work we do is “preventative actions”. This captures a range of activities anywhere from jumping off the rocks and swimming next to someone in a rip current around the head of the groin to a blanket announcement on a loudspeaker telling people to clear the water because lightning is moving into the area, to talking to a mom on the beach explaining the dangers in the area. We track all of these by calling the numbers in by radio to our dispatcher, who then enters it into our dispatch program. We have a specially designed system that keeps track of the numbers so we can pull out all kinds of statistical data which helps tailor our program to best use our resources in the places and times that are most efficient.

This year so far, we have already hit 293,602 preventative actions, and we’ve still got a ways to go. Last year the total for the entire year was 217,537, and in 2019 we hit 263,170. This is really eye opening, because 2019 was one of Galveston’s busiest years ever. Last year was still high even though the beaches were intermittently closed, and we missed quite a few potentially busy weekends and holidays.

Stats are weird in that you have to really tease out the contributing factors for them to be used for something as practical as to measure the efficacy of a lifeguard service or to measure workload. The number for preventative actions is a good measure of workload, but there are several factors that go into it. The amount of people on the beach is the obvious one, but that alone isn’t too significant since they have to get well on their way to trouble before we intervene. By that I mean, for example, that if a thousand people are swimming between the groins at 53rd and 51st street and the water is completely calm, we won’t have to move many from the rocks. If there is a current running and/or large surf with the same number of people swimming, we could be crazy busy and make hundreds of preventative actions in a matter of a few hours.

Water temperature is another variable. Thousands of people on the beach, but water too cold to swim in for long will keep stats way lower than a few hundred on the beach with warm water. Also, if the water is warm early in the spring and late in the fall as is the trend, our annual stats climb even higher because we’re having to work hard more of the year. In recent history, we’ve been looking at the swimming season as almost the entire year as opposed to just a few months.

And finally, the one that’s not immediately obvious is how many guards we actually have out there working in towers for how much of the year. More guards equate to higher stats related to prevention. Less means less prevention more rescues from vehicles and more drownings.

Storm Response

Coming off the Labor Day weekend we all jumped straight into a hurricane. If we needed a reminder that Mother Nature is completely random and impartial with respect to our needs and wants, we’ve just gotten yet another one. I’m impressed with how quickly we bounce back. Things were opening the very next day and city, county, and Park Board crews jumped right out there and started fixing things like it was, well, a normal occurrence.

Even for us on Beach Patrol, we’ve got “normal” storm prep, response, and recovery down to a science. Coastal Zone crews got our towers off the beach the same day we made the call to pull everything off. It really helps that our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Office is so responsive and proactive. The information we need is always at our fingertips. Once they forecasted tides over 4 feet, we decided to pull the towers off the beach. And when we saw that the wind was going to be over the tropical storm threshold, we decided to go to the additional trouble to get them down to the safe area that we store them in the winter. Coastal Zone Management and the Park Board Parks staff got the zillions of trashcans in the parks and all the way down the entire beachfront off the beach and out of harm’s way as well. That taken care of, we were able to divert our full attention to keeping people safe by making sure they were out of or in very shallow water, stayed far from structures that could cause rip currents, and off rocks once the waves started breaking on top of them. For the most part people were responsive and helpful for this one.

Once the storm passed, we immediately went out and started assessing how many of the 600 or so safety signs we maintain along the beachfront were lost. The next couple of days we had lifeguard crews out there picking signs off the beachfront, jetting stumps out, and re-installing signs that were down. All in all, we had 56 “No Swimming/Wading” signs, 35 “No Swimming” signs, 16 “No Swimming” icon signs, and 9 rescue buoy boxes go down. Many of these we were able to re-use by picking them up and re-installing them. Still, many were damaged or lost completely and had to be replaced with new ones. We’re still tallying but looks like it will be a bit over $20,000 worth of damage. The good thing is that we keep a roughly 30% reserve for just this occasion, so we have signs ready to pop back up there as we’re having new ones made to replace the reserve. We want to shorten the time the signs are down as much as possible for obvious reasons. In this case looks like we are able to get everything fully operational, including getting towers back out on the beach, in time for this weekend. We want to make sure all is good to go by the time the beach goers arrive.

 

 

Courtesy of Twitter
Justin Michaels (@JMichaelsNews) | Twitter
and The Weather Channel

Labord Day and kids with a bucket

“Mr. Lifeguard, Mr. Lifeguard look what we caught!”

I turned around to see three cute kids running at me with a pail of water that was sloshing over the side. Dad followed them shrugging and smiling sheepishly as if to say, “Its out of my hands”.

Looking into the bucket I saw a mass of Japanese Jellyfish. Not the nice kind with the little almost clear, rice noodle looking stringy tentacles either. But the big mean ones with the brown, ropey, thick tentacles that bring back bad memories of swimming workouts gone bad and parents looking at me accusingly as I try to explain that I can’t magically make the pain go away that their kids are experiencing.

But this was a good thing. With Dad’s permission I explained that the current treatment is to rinse the water with saline, remove any tentacles that may be still on the skin, and rinse again thoroughly. Afterwards, you can treat for pain with ice or topical anesthetic. I drew a diagram in the sand of a tentacle and talked about the thousands of stinging cells, or nematocyst, in each square inch. And how each nematocyst can shoot out a tiny barb, or nematode that causes pain. Only about 10% of the nematodes typically fire when the tentacle contacts skin, so rinsing it in saline, or salt water, will help to wash away those cells that haven’t fired yet. That’s why we don’t use vinegar, uric acid, diluted bleach, alcohol, or any number of other treatments we’ve been through in the past. And why lots of home remedies like rubbing the area with wet sand, chewing tobacco, etc. usually make it worse.

We’d hit the max attention span for a 5–6-year-old, and the kids ran off to let the jellyfish free as I called in to our dispatcher “four water safety talks”.  As I turned back to what I was doing, I though about how cool it is that we get to have this type of interaction with tourists all the time, all over the beach, all year. In fact, last year, including school talks, we made over 30,000 “water safety talks” along with thousands of “tourist contacts” where we give out local information about the beach or about Galveston.

Labor Day weekend marked the end of the busiest part of the season, although beach activity will likely continue until the end of November or even into early December. This past weekend we were busy but not slammed. It was comparable to many of the busy weekends we’ve seen throughout the summer. We ended up moving over 12,000 people from dangerous areas, responding to 318 medical calls (most were jellyfish stings), made 3 water rescues, reunited 7 lost children with their parents, and made 147 enforcements along the beach. We also had 1,382 water safety contacts, similar to my discussion with the kids with the bucket of jellyfish.

At the end of the day, it’s the personal contacts that prevent drownings and keep our guests coming back.

 

 

Image courtesy of KSAT

Labor Day Prep

We had a very near miss with Hurricane Ida. Remember, as tired as we all are of all kinds of stressors, we’re still only in the middle of storm season. Maintain vigilance and stay tuned to advice from our local experts. Especially be sure you have your plan together and everything is in order for a quick evacuation if needed.

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. Fortunately we have a lot of help from other groups. The Coastal Zone Management team has cleared paths to the water at the San Luis Pass and at the beach parks to allow for first responders to access the beachfront. Our partners in the Galveston Marine Response have trained and prepared and are staffing extra help. The County Emergency Response Team (C.E.R.T.) will provide valuable support at the San Luis Pass and Boddecker drive to augment our dedicated lifeguard patrol keeping people from entering those dangerous tidal areas. And, of course, our dedicated group of “Wave Watchers” will provide an extra layer of surveillance, help with lost children, and be there in many other ways.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point- and that point is the shoreline. Water is not our natural environment. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings and think about potential risks at the beach or any other body of water does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, non-swimmers  and children should wear properly fitted lifejackets, and take precautions for the heat and sun. At the beach, it’s very important to avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. Also avoid areas with strong tides like the ends of the island. Both the San Luis Pass and Boddecker Drive areas are illegal to swim in.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association agencies, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it.

Drowning at 61st

Last Tuesday morning a man got to the beach at 61st early, walked around a bit, left his things just east of the pier, and went into the water. The time that elapsed at that point is unclear, but when the lifeguard arrived on location, all he saw was calm, clear, water with a tiny hint of clean waves rolling onto the beach. Unlike most mornings this season, there were only a handful of people on the beach.

As the lifeguard prepared for the day, he opened the tower, raised the appropriate flags, arranged his things, and left tracks to and from the water when he checked the conditions. He looked for unusually strong currents or drop offs, and felt which way the current was going, so he’d have an idea how far to keep people from the groin and what hazards he would protect them from. After his usual routine, he settled in for his shift.

A short time later, he spotted a body floating in about chest deep water, maybe 50 yards from the rocks on the east side. He notified dispatch and ran into the water. The guard at 59th reported he had no swimmers near his groin and was cleared to run down and help. A supervisor arrived a very short time later as they dragged the man from the water onto the sand. The three of them did CPR, intubated the man, and hooked him up to the AED (Automatic External Defibrillator). The machine did not advise a shock. They continued CPR with the help of the Fire Department and EMS when they arrived. The man was quickly loaded into the ambulance, and they drove away. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

Once the ambulance, police vehicles, fire truck, and Beach Patrol rescue trucks left the area, the beach returned to the quiet, apparently innocuous, day it started as with the exception of our tire tracks and prints from walking, dragging and kneeling.

There was more. We interviewed people to try to figure out what happened. Gathered his things off the beach and let city officials, other public safety groups, and the media know what happened. Wrote up a report that contained everything we could figure out and sent it to the Medical Examiner’s office. Talked to the man’s two sisters and met with one to give her his things. Reviewed the event internally to determine if we did everything we could have and what we can do to prevent a similar occurrence. One of the most critical things is that we contacted our partners at the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network to contact the family to see if they could offer any type of psychological or spiritual support, and to set up a critical incident counselling session with the guards who responded, to make sure they were ok and will continue to be ok.

The marks we made on the sand were washed away with the next high tide.

Lightning Policy

WHACK! I didn’t remember seeing a flash or hearing thunder, but my ears were ringing. I looked around and it felt like I’d just woken up. My heart was beating pretty quickly, and my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I noticed a volleyball court pole about 15 yards away was split in half and shards of wood were scattered in a radius of 20 feet or so from the pole.

Suddenly it was if a fog cleared, and I remembered dispatch had radioed with a warning about a storm cell moving in the area and realized two guards were on a metal 4 wheeler 3 miles down the beach in the direction the storm was moving. We were helping set up for a footrace on Stewart Beach. On the way there, two more bolts hit close enough that I couldn’t tell a time difference between the bang and the flash, but I never saw where they hit. When I got there, the three of us huddled in my truck, windows up, without touching the sides or radios.  We canceled the event.

The United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org) and the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) years back formed a task force that I was on to establish procedures to notify the public on our nation’s beaches when lightning poses a threat. I learned a great deal, but the main points were that the general public should seek shelter in a closed building that’s grounded or a vehicle when they hear thunder. Open buildings, non-grounded shelters, or just getting out of the water and on the beach does not protect you or your family. Armed with that information we in the United States Lifesaving Association came up with a template and guidelines for beach lifeguard agencies to use to establish policies for protecting both the public and their staff from lightening strikes.

Our Supervisors have been revisiting this policy recently to try to tighten up some of the cracks. They’re really committed to protecting people and it’s been a good discussion which was facilitated by Supervisor Micah Fowler. As is recommended, we pull the guards from most of the towers and notify the beachgoing public via PA systems to seek shelter in a vehicle or building when lightning strikes within 10 miles of where they are. We have two fancy towers that are grounded that we’re able to leave guards in, but the other 29 towers we clear. Sounds good on paper, but we’re talking about 33 miles of beach and potentially as many as 150,000 people. And often we aren’t able to get back to the same area quickly enough when we put the guards back up and its safe to get back out there.

So, the consensus is that the best approach is to have the guards drop their flags to show the area isn’t’ guarded and include in the announcements that when the guards return the lightning is no longer a threat.

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

Disco Dog Party

Some of you may remember the gas rig that was the closest platform off the beach back in the 80’s and 90’s. Before they took it down, in a wilder era, Beach Patrol made good use of both that and the old light house on the end of the south jetty.

I had a Hawaiian Sling, which is basically a long stick with a stretchy band on one end and prongs on the other end to catch fish with. None of my friends had boats to get to the far rigs, but it was an easy paddle to the close rig. We’d go out there on a kayak, paddleboard, or our Dory (2 person rowboat) and catch fish to eat or to put in our saltwater tank. After spending a couple of hours in the water we’d climb up on the rig for lunch. We’d jump off the top a few times, then see who could make it to the bottom and come up with sand (about 40 feet or so).

Beach Patrol got bigger, and we started getting more organized. We’d pick a good day and a group of us would swim out to the rig. A round trip swim could be up to around 4 miles. One year everyone that made the swim got highly coveted “Aqua Posse” t-shirts.

Beach Patrol is primarily made up of college and high school kids who have way too much energy and brain power to sit still in a tower for an eight hour stretch. Those slow days mean lots of time to think up new and ever more ridiculous schemes. We had a competition where 5 teams of 5 had to go to the rig and bring back a photo essay of an “event”. No motors allowed. The theme of the skit was drawn from a traditional lifesaving pith helmet.  At the end we had a party where we displayed the results and voted on the winning team. The winners that year had a mafia theme. The photos showed a guy taken by guys and girls in pin striped suits and cardboard tommy guns to the rig. He was “tied up” and thrown off the platform wearing fake cement shoes to “swim with the fishes”.

Of course, nothing can hold a candle to the annual “Disco Dog Party” at the lighthouse. No motors or people without costumes allowed. Even though I’m sure the statute of limitations is over, it’s probably best if I don’t go into too many details. I will however confess to strobe lights and hotdogs. And a guy paddling up during the night to some shark fishermen. Wearing chains and full disco regalia, he asked, “Any of you guys seen a disco party out here?” Ended up the man in the boat was a State Rep who made a few calls. That was a tough one, explaining to my boss’s boss, the Sheriff, what we were doing out there. Me (and my career) are lucky he had such a good sense of humor.

SHARKS

Nat Geo ran a documentary story this week about sharks and played an interview I did with them a while back. Whenever Shark Week rolls around people start seeing things in our water  and reporting them. They’re almost always a dolphin’s pectoral fin since you really wouldn’t spot a shark from the shoreline very often, but people can still get pretty worked up about anything to do with sharks. There are a lot of sharks in the Gulf and they capture the imagination.

But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 7 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty favorably… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations, and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example, in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz, I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal seen from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them, they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while leaking blood- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution, you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer