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OTB – Spring Break Kickoff

Tomorrow morning at 7am we will be holding the first lifeguard tryout of the season. If you know anyone who is interested in taking on the tough but rewarding job of joining the team that protects over 7 million people that visit our beaches annually, tell them to meet us at the UTMB Field House swimming pool. If they pass the swim, interview, and drug test, they can begin the lifeguard academy right away. The academy involves medical training, lifeguard skills, open water swimming techniques, physical training, tourist relations, environmental awareness, and team building. It’s not for everyone, but those that make it through will never find anything else quite as rewarding. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience preventing accidents and saving lives on a daily basis.

Despite the weird freeze we just had, it’s impossible to deny that spring is here. You can feel it in the way the wind blows, the smells, and how the light looks as the days lengthen. The sun feels so good this time of year, and more and more people are out on the beach fishing, walking, surfing, and just enjoying the return of good weather.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend, remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. And be sure not to swim at the ends of the island (San Luis Pass and Ship Channel), because of the strong tidal currents and irregular bottom.

One of our main concerns on the beach front is that people stay far from the rocks to avoid rip currents. Rip currents are narrow channels of water that run away from shore and are responsible for 80% of rescues in the beach environment both locally and nationally. If caught in a rip current, just relax and float, you will eventually most likely be brought back to shore by the currents and waves. If you’re able, swim parallel to shore out of the current towards breaking waves.

If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. We have a crew of lifeguards that will requalify tomorrow morning and will be out on the stands by the time the crowds arrive. The trends all point to the possibility of record crowds during Spring Break and throughout the summer. Galveston is booming and we’re going to see another big beach year. Granted the demands this puts on our community’s resources is significant and it makes all the public safety departments jobs tough, but it’s like the Spanish saying, “Vale la pena”. It’s worth the effort. If we can provide a tourist friendly, safe, fun experience for our visitors and locals, everyone goes home happy. This means repeat business that we all benefit from.

OTB – Spring Break and SSN

Looks like all signs point to yet another big Spring Break! Seems like one day its winter and the next the sun’s out, the water’s warm, and the beaches are packed. Despite the fact that we’ve just been through an ice storm and are a year into the Covid pandemic, we all need to gear up for the beach season. Ready for another year on the beach and all the challenges, work, and even joy that it brings.

Don’t forget that next weekend on Saturday, March 13th, we have lifeguard tryouts. Our website had details if you or someone you know is interested. We need the help!

As you know, we put a great deal of effort into preventing drownings and the numbers have been reduced through the years. Unfortunately, despite these efforts there are usually a handful each year. Support for the families has traditionally been one of the hardest things for our staff. If the body is not recovered rapidly, families can end up sitting on the beach near the last spot that person was for long periods of time. In these few cases, there can be the need for food and drink, counseling, translating, acting as a point of contact for different agencies, and dealing with consulates and embassies, etc.

As you can imagine, this was way beyond the scope of what a lifeguard agency can effectively handle. Our friends and partners at the Jesse Tree stepped up a few years ago. Ted Handley and David Mitchell developed a program with our input called the “Survivor Support Network” (SSN).

The SSN is a web of people and organizations that respond to this type of situation. They have filled all the needs described above and even provided Critical Incident Stress Debriefings to the lifeguard staff after undergoing traumatic experiences. They have provided this service at little or no cost to us for a number of years and we are deeply appreciative, as are the people whose lives they touch.

All kinds of non-profits like the Jesse Tree are suffering in the current economy, so volunteers are all the more important. The SSN relies on volunteers groups and people to function. If you or your group is interested in participating in this incredible program, please contact David Mitchell at the Jesse Tree 409-762-2233 or dmitchel@jessetree.net . We’re especially interested in finding licensed grief councilors or people that specialize in Critical Incident Stress Management, but everyone’s got a skill or resource that is welcome.

Typically, the SSN is only activated a handful of times a year, but when it is the need is severe. I can’t begin to tell you the difference I’ve seen it have on the lives it touches. If you feel this is for you, get with David.

Another option to help the beach guards and the general public is to join the Wave Watcher Cadre. More on that later, but info is on our website and we’ll have an academy in April.

See you on the beach!

OTB – Season Starting

The beach water temperature dropped down to 45 degrees during the ice storm. And two weeks from now we’ll be starting the main week of spring break. Must be Texas.

We’ll be holding lifeguard tryouts that weekend as well on Saturday, March 13th, at 7am at UTMB Pool House, 301 Holiday Dr. Anyone interested can find details on our website www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com. Don’t be late we start right at 7! Spend your summer on the beach in a fun, challenging, and a responsible position working as an Ocean Lifeguard! The Spring Break Lifeguard Academy will start immediately after the swim and drug test. At the end of the 9-day course graduates will start working the Galveston beaches. The course involves open water swimming and rescue techniques, a beefy first aid and CPR course, being a tourism ambassador, diversity training, a leadership module, training on how to enforce beach rules and city ordinances, representing the Park Board and the City of Galveston, and a lot more. It’s one of the most challenging things many of our candidates have ever done but the rewards are worth it.

We’re now in a pre-game flurry of activity, especially since we lost a little ground last week. We maintain over 600 safety signs along the beachfront and all of them need to be back up before Spring Break kicks off.  Many of these have to be set using a water jet, so we have to have just the right tide and wave conditions. While the crew is out there, they also jet out any stumps that are broken off from previous signage. We try to remove any light debris and work with the Coastal Zone Management crew to get the heavier stuff out. Prevention isn’t just about moving swimmers away from rocks!

We are also starting to do water safety talks for the schools in the Houston/Galveston area. Normally we’d be deep into this part of our program, but Covid has thrown the schools for a loop and many are just now getting scheduled. Lots of these will happen on Zoom this year, so we’re learning to navigate all of that.

We’re also looking at a hybrid Wave Watcher Academy for our volunteer cadre. If you’re interested in attending the free Wave Watcher Academy this year, you’ll have the option to do it online, in-person with Covid precautions, or a combination of the two.

One thing we’re going to reinstate this year is our Junior Guard Program. This popular day camp will be back, also with new safety precautions due to Covid. We are currently accepting applications, so if you have kids between 10-15 we’d love to have them join the team. We even have scholarships available for those who qualify.

We are anticipating an extremely busy beach season and it will kick off shortly whether or not it feels like it right now. We’ll need every piece of our safety network and the help of all our partner groups to keep the millions who will visit our beaches safe. We need you!

OTB – Gtown Lifesaving up till 50’s

We’ve got about a month before lifeguard tryouts. Spread the word to anyone interested and tell them to start swimming and check our website for details! We’re going to need a lot of new guards to address the increased beach use that’s been trending.

With just a few weeks left before the beach kicks into high gear and each week there is news for this column, it’s a great time to look backwards.

As you may know, the first lifeguards were really dealing with shipwrecks. But through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for marking sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of paid lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the then-called “Negro Beach” on 28th street, which was guarded by a small number of African American lifeguarding pioneers. (More to come on that topic). Galveston also had what may have been the first all women “Surf and Toboggan Club” un the USA, which helped tremendously by stationing a rescue boat and rowing team on the beach during busy times. Guards worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “Lifesaving Beach Patrol System,” and the first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing  number of beachgoers. The area at the west end of the seawall became a second designated beach for African Americans.

 

 

Photos courtesy of the Rosenberg Library

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

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. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!

Staffing Difficulties

Staffing has been a real issue for us on the Beach Patrol for about three years now. At full strength, we run 135 Seasonal Lifeguards, in addition to the 15 full and part time employees we have. Our seasonal numbers have been more along the lines of 100-110.

When we’re short handed we still do our best to cover the beach. Guards pull longer hours, and/or we cancel morning training sessions, and some guards pick up additional shifts. Full time staff are also tasked with working lifeguard towers and we run fewer vehicles. Of course, there is a price for all of this.

I’ve come to think of the Beach Patrol as a living entity. When taxed, it compensates up to a point. When you’re hot, sweating helps maintain healthy temperature for a while. When really cold, your body will naturally shunt all the blood away from the extremities to the important parts (head and core) in order to protect your brain and vital functions. Your body does something similar for extreme injuries or illnesses when it goes into shock. So, the living entity of Beach Patrol has a built-in resiliency for emergencies like staffing shortages or lack of resources. These tricks work for a while but going into these modes of operation is not sustainable.  Eventually you pay the price for these measures in the form of staff burnout, lack of employee satisfaction, reduced staff retention, less reliability in attendance, loss of focus, etc.

This year has been a rough one on a variety of fronts. When Covid hit the hotels suffered tremendously. Since we operate exclusively off of hotel tax money, we took a proportional hit. We’ve already been struggling with meeting our number of guards in a part of the country where we don’t have huge amounts of swimmers to draw from, but we were looking at cutting the number of guards even more. Additionally, we lost our J1 Visa Cultural Exchange Visa foreign lifeguards because the program was suspended. We’ve been using these workers to close the employee deficit gap for a few years now with great success. And the crowds this summer are bigger than ever.

We were saved this year by two factors and have been consistently covering all of our 32 towers on the weekends. Our board wisely allowed us to use some reserve monies to allow us to hire enough guards. Additionally and unexpectedly, a number of older guards, who would have been working part time or not at all, were not able to work other jobs or internships which were cancelled because of Covid. That was a big help. Because many are not going off to school they’re still out on the beach taking care of beachgoers.

As we go through budgeting options for next year it looks like another challenging year is in store. I do, however, feel confident that our board, administrative staff, and we on the front lines will do whatever we can to ensure people are safe when they visit Galveston’s beaches.

IMAGE: DANIEL KRAMER

Holiday Weekend Wrap Up

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July Weekend, despite the weird thing of not being to celebrate it on the beach. Big news here is we’ll be having yet another lifeguard academy. Tryouts are Monday, July 13th, and info is on our website.

We spent most of our weekend doing the unenviable task of telling people they couldn’t have a good time. But it was also so eerily quiet that it was, in some ways, a welcome break from how hectic this summer has been so far. By Sunday evening, we’d moved around 2,500 people off the beach and responded to a handful of potential emergencies. This is completely different from what we’d normally have been doing. Normally we’d have reunited scores of lost children with their parents, moved thousands from dangerous areas, made a few rescues, and responded to a whole bunch of medical and water related emergencies.

The beaches are back open, so as a reminder there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, stay calm and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well-meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.

As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of protection if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids, or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Overall, use good common sense in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

Family

I have a brother that lives in Bogota, Colombia.  He and his wife can’t go out together. And when they leave one at a time, they can only go to the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor’s office. The police stop them and ask questions each time they leave. My brother is a runner, so he’s taken to running to the grocery store. Then sometimes he runs a loop to a couple of other grocery stores because he “can’t find an item he has to have”. He’s got a nice 6-mile loop that’s working for him, but he has to be careful. Last week a police car followed him the last mile and made sure he went into his apartment building.

My other brother has a wife and two small kids and lives in Panama. They live right off a fairly remote beach on a big piece of land. His daughter just turned 6, so they walked the 4 blocks down the path to the beach. After about 45 minutes, two officials walked up and issued both my brother and his wife tickets. It was an expensive birthday party. And it doesn’t stop there. Twice a week he gets two hours to go out for supplies at a designated time. He goes through roadblocks where they check his ID card to make sure the last numbers match his designated time code. His wife gets three times a week, same deal. And every night the entire country gets a national broadcast where the latest about the pandemic is shared with the whole country including updates on the numbers of cases and how the country is doing on their national strategy. There’s a campaign that’s everywhere called “Solidarity” where its re-emphasized that if everyone doesn’t pull together it drags on longer and more people die.

My brothers and I are close. They always ask about the Galveston beach when we talk. When I told them that the Texas beaches are opening up for business, they are incredulous. Then I showed them what the beaches looked like last weekend during “quarantine”. Explained how the Beach Patrol made almost 5,000 enforcement actions last weekend alone trying to keep people off the beach. Not to mention what the Galveston Police Department and Code Enforcement have done. They are from here and they still were shocked.

But now that’s water under the bridge and, as always, we deal with what we’ve got to work with. We’re ramping up as fast as possible. It’s Cinco De Mayo weekend so parks will be open, and the available guards we do have will be out. Fortunately, the Park Board has approved use of some of our reserve funds to cover the beaches during the summer. Until we get some new ones trained, we’ll be short staffed. So be smart, be safe, and swim near a Lifegaurd.

We’ll have a lifeguard academy starting May 5th. We need guards bad, so pass the word to check our website for details.

 

Photo by: Keri Heath, The Daily News

We’ll get Through This Together

We really appreciate all the calls etc. about people who have not been following the beach ban order. We’re doing the best we can to stay on top of all of this. It’s been tough, especially on the West End. We have 4-6 vehicles a day on the beaches dedicated to just keeping them clear of people. The police have also done quite a bit, as are code enforcement officers. So far Beach Patrol/Park Board Police alone has given over 4,500 verbal warnings and removed those people from the beach. This amount of contact with people puts my staff and other emergency responders at risk, so I ask that you do your part and don’t be one of the people we have to move or ticket.

Most people have been really good about it and don’t need to be told more than once. To be clear NO ONE is allowed on the beach right now aside from people who have to work on the beach like police, lifeguards, and maintenance crews. The fine for breaking this mayoral order can be as much as $500 and it looks like enough people have been non-compliant to warrant more forceful measures. That said, of the thousands moved most seem to understand why its so important that we reduce congregation on the beaches and prevent large groups from coming here. They just seem to think it applies to “those people”.

At the time of writing this, City Council was about to meet to look at a plan to partially open the beaches in May. If they approve it, looks like there will be, for starters, some early morning weekday hours that we can all get out there and walk, run, fish, surf, bike, and walk our dogs. All the things that make living in a beach town so wonderful. As long as people follow the hours, maintain social distancing, and don’t set up chairs or lay on one place, we should be able to gradually open up more hours and days. Much will depend on Houston, so they’reworking to open during days and times that are less likely for the beaches to get inundated with people while we wait for the Houston area to get a little more past the crisis point. Moving too fast could mean we have to get more restrictive again, and none of us wants that.

Many of us have been very impressed with our leaders here on the island and how thoughtful the public and private discussions have been. I’m proud to be working with all the groups and people involved in management of the beaches and of the city response to the pandemic. That also includes all the thoughtful citizens who are willing to do things for the greater good. And,of course, my staff, who consistently surprise me with their patience and determination to keep people safe even if it puts my crew at risk.

We’ll get through this together. Please keep yourself healthy and watch out for your neighbors.

Recover and Rebuild

Corona’s effects on our beach are both eerily familiar and completely foreign all at the same time. But Galveston, like the rest of the world’s beaches, has had a long history of disruptions.

Reading accounts from the 1800’s there are times when the bay and parts of the beach water froze completely over. You could ride a horse drawn cart to the mainland over the frozen surface of the bay according to one account. Other times in the 17th century, the lifeguard service fell to a minimum or was completely disbanded for a time, at least until there was a traumatic event with multiple deaths. This was a pattern that continued all the way until the 1980’s where, after the event, the community invariably renewed their interest and commitment in maintaining a lifeguard service.

In the 20th century we saw Waikiki Beach ruined and rebuilt because of erosion caused by construction projects. Part of Miami Beach, Jersey coast, and Southern California were also lost to a pattern of erosion caused by building projects, dams, and natural disasters.

Here in Galveston, we are no strangers to this pattern in the past few centuries. In the later 1800s there were massive wooden beach pavilions that were lost in two storms in the later part of the century, and again in the Great Storm of 1900. The Great Depression had a huge effect on beach attendance, both because people didn’t have resources for recreation, but also because the beach is free recreation. We see this pattern even today when the economy dips or gas prices increase, and we get more day trippers to the island.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been with the Beach Patrol we’ve been knocked down by Hurricane Alicia, where I sat helplessly with another guard watching pieces of the Flagship Hotel being ripped off by high winds and falling into the water. The next year the guards spent the second half of the summer keeping people out of the water and capturing birds for cleaning because of a massive oil spill. We’ve seen our resources swell because of new beaches created in the 90’s and dwindle again when the convention center was built. And of course, we worked up to and through Hurricane Ike, only to see budget reductions right afterwards when the Great Recession hit.

Corona had brought, and will bring, another big challenge to Galveston’s lifeguard service. We’ve cut all seasonal staff and are not working any tower lifeguards. Our amazing, dedicated year-round staff is still working and tasked with the unenviable job of keeping the beaches clear of people. But the real challenge lays ahead. We are almost completely funded by hotel tax dollars and the hotels have taken a serious financial hit. No one really knows at this point when things will get back to the point when business picks up, or how the larger economic picture will affect the hotels and tourism industry.

Rough times are no doubt ahead, but history shows us that we will recover and rebuild.