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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!

Mothers Day Wrap Up

Two boys drifted towards the rocks in the longshore current. Once they got to the point of the longshore current, which pushed from West to East, met the rip current, which pulled out towards the end of the groin, there was no going back. They couldn’t swim to shore or against the longshore current. They had two options. They could swim out around the groin or they could climb up on the rocks. Because they were swimming at 47th, which was not guarded, there was no one to whistle them in or go in for them and swim them around the pier.

Fortunately, this was just another close call. A passing lifeguard patrol truck saw them and made it to them in time to keep them above water as all three climbed up onto the rocks together. They were cut up but alive.

It was a wild ride. We moved 4,664 swimmers, like these two, away from rip currents before they got in trouble. A handful of groins weren’t guarded, and our Supervisors scrambled in trucks to keep swimmers safe in these, and many other areas. Bumper to bumper traffic, beaches and water peppered with people made moving around quickly an impossibility. At one point we had a large, combative guy refuse to get out of the water (for hours), that was ultimately arrested by the Galveston Police Department. Meanwhile we had rescues made by lifeguards, a bike went off the seawall causing a significant head injury, and there were a couple of incidents involving weapons. All to the beat of a steady stream of swimmers moved, lost children reunited, a near drowning in a pool, and enforcements for everything from dogs off a leash to alcohol infractions. The fever pitch was exacerbated by a sand blasting 25 mile per hour South wind. The fun didn’t stop when the sun went down when joined our public safety partners to several nighttime beach emergencies, including a merry band of revelers who, around 4am, decided to drive their truck into the water at the San Luis Pass. The party continued on top of the vehicle, until eventually they came to shore at the coaxing of the public safety groups that responded. One guy tried to make a break for it back to his almost floating truck, but a Jamaica Beach Police Officer and several Galveston Firefighters stopped him.

The crowd looked like a busy Memorial weekend, which is our busiest weekend of the year. I was extraordinarily proud of our crew, who worked so hard and so long in such difficult conditions. From the lifeguards who were in the water most of the day moving swimmer after swimmer, up to Captain Tony Pryor, who worked a 10-hour shift, then came back in for 3 more hours when we had all our vehicles out on emergencies and needed support for the lifeguards and someone to patrol unguarded areas.

Tomorrow, May 15th, we have tryouts, and all employers are hurting for people. Let’s all pray for a good turnout!

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

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: African American Lifeguard Heroes!

Last week’s column was an overview of our local lifeguarding history that left off with the time that African American beaches were designated by law and by Galveston’s dominant culture of the time. To talk about this part of our collective beach history I have to lean on someone who knows much more about this (and about pretty much everything else), my wife.

Carol Bunch-Davis works at Texas A&M Galveston as the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, is an Associate Professor of English, and is the Chair of the Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Committee. No, she doesn’t write these columns for me (looking at you Tom Linton)! At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Anyway, Carol recently wrote an essay called “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards” that I’ll draw from for this column.

In 1922 there were already two African American Beaches. One was at 28th and was referred to as “Brown Beach”, and the other on the west end and was called “Sunset Camps”.

Waverly Guidry worked the 28th street beach location from 1942 until 1957. When he died his obituary didn’t mention his lifesaving career, but referred to him as a ‘self-employeed

When Wavery Guidry died in 1986 at the age of 74, the obituary did not mention his 14 seasons as lifeguard at 28th Street Beach, or “Brown Beach” as it was sometimes called. It instead identified Guidry as “a self-employed vegetable man” and a “merchant seaman”. But he was the second African American lifeguard to work that beach and is credited with nearly 30 rescues that were documented in the local news, and likely many that weren’t documented.

One example that illustrates just some of the challenges that lifeguards, and particularly African American guards, of the day faced occurred when an African American worker on the Pleasure Pier fell off some scaffolding and drowned. Being a white beach, they called Guidry from his guard post to find the body. He spent hours with a grappling hook, which was the technique of the time, looking for the body as the two white guards on duty stood watching him.

The African American community petitioned for a paid lifeguard from 1921 until 1935 when James Helton was officially hired. He’d actually been volunteering as a guard from the time he graduated from Central High School a year earlier. He worked most of his career at the port as a stevedore and finished his beach guarding in1943. Early in his career, a fully dressed white woman walked into the water. A white deputy noticed her and turned his car around to see what was going on. Helton dove into the water and saved the woman from drowning and potential suicide. Effecting what was, no doubt, a difficult save as a young man starting his career, he woke the following day to read in Galveston Tribune that the rescue was attributed to “the intuition of a special deputy sheriff with the assistance of a negro lifeguard”.

 

 

Photo:  Courtesy of Rosenberg Library