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One Beach One Lifeguard

The small 5-year-old, brown skinned, dark haired girl played in the sand with her little sister on the beach. Their fully clothed mother and grandmother laid out a tablecloth and set the china place settings out with well practiced movements. It was a summer day in 1943 at the beach by Murdoch’s Bathhouse.

Barbara, the older of the two, looked off and spotted someone. Smiling, she asked if she could go visit her “friend”. Her mom, Alberta Stevens, said she could but to “hurry back and don’t bother him too much”. She ran as fast as her little 5-year-old legs could carry her up to the lifeguard chair and looked up to the mountain of a man sitting up there. He waved her up smiling. As she started to climb, he reached down and picked her up, tossing her into the air while she giggled. She snuggled into his lap as he kept a watchful eye on the swimmers. It was a calm day with light crowds, and both sat for a while comfortably relaxed.

After a time, she turned to him so he could read her lips and said, “Mr. Colombo, why doesn’t anyone ever help you?”  He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and held up his index finger. “One beach…” little Barbara said, as he then pointed to himself with his thumb and then held up his finger again. “…one lifeguard!” she squealed laughing, as she always did at this game.

Of course, I took a bit of “artistic license” here since it happened way before that little 5-year-old grew up and gave birth to me, but it’s based on stories Mom told me and a popular saying about Colombo that’s been passed down in beach lore. It does, however, exemplify a basic difference in lifeguarding philosophy (and public safety philosophy) that’s changed in relatively recent times.

Back when recreational swimming first became a “craze”, and modern lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene, the idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on their own. Rightfully so, since they generally worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup. When things go bad in the water it happens quickly, so if help arrives in time it would have to already be on the way before trouble started. In Colombo’s day, those kinds of resources were not a possibility economically or culturally. Someone of his swimming ability was the exception to the norm and that’s partly why he was so special.

The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the extent that we look at the whole rescue “chain”. Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. Safer for the rescuers and more effective.

It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizzazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard”.

Photo courtesy of Signing Savvy
YOUR SIGN LANGUAGE RESOURCE
signingsavvy.com

 

Cooling Down

Traditionally, we always look at Halloween as the point where the water is too cold to see much activity. That has gone out the window with so much else, but it is a marker that things are starting to cool down. When the seasons change, it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s instead of the 80’s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

We’ve still been busy, particularly on the weekends. Having our seasonal lifeguards, who work in the towers, gone had meant our Full-Time crew has had to step it up, which they’ve done. They’re having a competition to see who can put the most miles on their vehicles as they patrol. Without the towers, keeping moving is the name of the game so we can keep those swimmers out of the rip currents near the rocks.

As a lifeguard told me a while back, the end of the season is a kind of “bittersweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work, it’s a relief for them 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 and 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, in addition to patrolling daily, also continues to respond to 911 calls 24 hours a day throughout the winter.  In addition, we also start off season maintenance duties soon. In addition to replacing beach signs and repairing equipment, we’ll soon start the main task for winter, which is to rebuild and replace the 24 lifeguard towers we put out on the beach each season. Other duties include website redesign, water safety education outreach, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. It goes fast and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding for spring break.

One really nice thing about cooler weather and not having that heavy press of people on the beach, is that our team gets a chance to drop down to a 40-hour work week, and get some time with family, to train, catch up on their chores at home, or even go for a low stress surf session. I’m really happy for them to get some normal days with a normal stress level after one of the most difficult seasons that we’ve been through in recent history.

There are still plenty of beautiful days on the beach so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most. See you there!

Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Supervisor Michael Lucero were powering up and down the seawall last Sunday moving swimmer after swimmer away from the rocks. The wind was howling, water was rough, there were strong lateral currents pulling people to the rocks, and the rip currents were really strong. On top of all that the beach was packed, the water and air were both in the ‘80’s, and only a handful of guards were able to come in to work.

They moved a woman away from the rocks on the west side of 17th street, explained the dangers, and raced to the next rock groin to make sure no one was getting too close since their last pass. They covered a zone that went from 37th to 10th street, but other trucks were working other zones along the beach doing the same thing. Even the 6 lifeguards in towers were busy just watching their one area.

A few minutes after they pulled away from 17th street, the 911 dispatcher came up on our radio reporting a call on a possible drowning. Moffett and Lucero raced back to 17th to find the same woman with bystanders having started CPR after finding her face down on the shoreline in shallow water on the opposite side of the rocks. They later learned from witnesses that she’d entered the water again a few minutes after they left outside of the “no swimming” area but was quickly swept to the rocks and got caught in the rip current. The rip currents caused a drop off so she couldn’t stand as the water pulled her away from shore. She struggled and went face down for a couple of minutes before the bystanders found her and pulled her up on the shore to begin CPR.

Moffett and Lucero arrived, ran to the crowd with their medical gear and quickly took over CPR. They got a heartbeat back with the help of the Galveston Fire Department. Police provided crowd control and got witness statements as she was moved up to the Seawall into a waiting ambulance.

By the end of the weekend, we moved about 2,500 people from the dangerous areas near the rocks and responded to quite a few emergency calls.

Monday was the last day for seasonal lifeguards. By the time you read this we will probably have all the towers off the beach for the rest of the year and will be working out of mobile patrol vehicles until next March. We still have quite a bit of warm weather ahead of us. Hopefully we won’t have another weekend like last one.

I am so proud of our staff for how they rise to the occasion when we have these “perfect storms” of warm water, crowds, and rough conditions. But we really hope that the people coming to the beach over the next few weeks realize that patrolling out of a vehicle is way less effective than having guards at each spot and take that personal responsibility to be safe upon themselves.

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.

LIFEGUARD TRYOUTS

LIFEGUARD TRYOUTS:

July 6th at 7:00 AM
UTMB Pool House
301 Holiday Dr. Galveston, TX 77550

Check back here or call us for updates the day before tryouts.  Swim location may be subject to changes.

DO NOT BE LATE FOR THE SWIM!  IT WILL START RIGHT AT 7AM!

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

Busy Summer Time

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. As I write this, I’m just back in from responding to an impressive 3 person rescue by Captain Pryor and Lifeguard Martinez at 39th street. Looks like one of two kids may have stepped off a sandbar into deeper water and his dad and sister tried to help him and they ended up all having trouble. Fortunately, Lifeguard Martinez showed up just in time for his shift and Captain Pryor was right there with his response. And this is just one of many similar incidents that have happened recently. I for one will be really happy when we get into a calmer water pattern as we get into the summer season.

We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and on holidays, County Emergency Response Team we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.

We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 14th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented 5th academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the UTMB Fieldhouse pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. And don’t forget our lifeguards just got a pay bump, so starting pay will be $14 an hour plus potential increases for being bilingual or having an EMT. Join our family!

Very soon we’ll start seeing an increase in storms that threaten the gulf. This is a good time for a reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. Good excuse for a mini vacation.

Hope to see you on the beach!

Memorial Weekend Wrap Up

The little girl sat in the sand with her plastic bucket and shovel. She was completely absorbed in her mission of shoveling sand into the bucket, pouring it back onto the ground, then repeating the process. Stewart Beach was packed. From a distance it looked like living, multicolored moss covered it completely. The girl had happily found a clear space to pursue her mission.

Unfortunately, the clear space was right in the middle of the emergency lane that runs from East to West. There are also corridors that run from the parking lot to the lifeguard towers. Working with park staff and the security detail, we struggle to keep them clear on busy days. But the lanes provide not only a clear spot for us to access people during an emergency, but also provide safe passage for beach service, vendors, and park staff working hard to keep the beaches clean.

I approached the girl, explaining she was in the “road” and asking her if she’d be willing to move to the other side of the poles. I received an emphatic “NO!”, as did the Lifeguard Supervisor for the area. Fortunately, her mom swooped into the rescue. The little girl smiled at me, bouncing up and down in her mother’s arms, as she was whisked away.

About an hour later, a mile and a half down the beach, I got flagged down by a couple who had discovered a lost child walking down the beach. Same girl, same smile. But now we were friends, so she rode happily with me back to her mom, punching random buttons in my truck that delighted her when lights went on or sirens blared. I asked her if she got lost a lot, and she replied, “All the time”. Shocking.

My new friend was one of 35 children we reunited with their families over the Memorial Weekend. Official beach season opened with a bang. We also moved 19,413 people from dangerous areas, responded to 55 medical calls, made 11 rescues, worked 6 possible drowning calls (one of which resulted in a fatality), made 186 enforcement actions, provided 354 tourists with information about the island, and gave water safety information to 4,238 people. This doesn’t include all the good work done by the other public safety groups, the security program for the beach parks, and the staff from the parks, parking, and Coastal Zone Management. One of our guards, who looked like an exhausted prune after spending about 3 or 4 cumulative hours of his 9 hour shift in the water moving swimmers, told me he couldn’t be responsible for what happened the next time someone shouted “easy money” or “Baywatch” at him.

I’m really proud of how well our staff handled the weekend. Especially considering many of them worked solo in towers, unlike previous years when they were doubled up for much of the day on holiday weekends.

If any of us had doubts about Galveston’s tourism bouncing back, I think last weekend took care of that!