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Botswana

Since 1983 I’ve missed one summer of lifeguarding in Galveston. That summer I missed was because after college I took a job teaching on a one year contract in Botswana, Africa and traveled at the end of my contract for about 9 months.

My teaching job was in a small mining community on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Even living in the desert I thought a lot about when I’d get to return to Galveston and work on the beach and tried to stay in shape. At first I’d run on the cattle trails through the hilly rocky terrain. I ended up not doing too much of that for two reasons. One was that it was rude to pass an older person without running through some rather lengthy introductions including asking how they woke up in the morning and telling them how you woke up (“I woke up nicely”). The second was that there were a number of dangerous animals once you got out in the country including lions, elephants, black and green mambas, and several kinds of cobras. I resorted to jumping rope or running on my laundry in the bathtub to wash clothes.

Finally I realized that my school , which was on the edge of the village, was near a sports club that had a weird small round swimming pool. The pool wasn’t very big, but I made friends with a man called Lux who would let me in when no one was in the pool so I could swim laps. I think I figured out that it took 100 laps to make a mile, but it was better than having to stop every 5 minutes to chat or running into something life threatening. The only scary thing was this group of baboons would come down from a nearby hill and watch me and point at me like I was crazy.

Sometimes I’d go for the weekend to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which was the nearest big city. It was a tough trip involving a money exchange with some women of the Shona ethnic group under this tree, a border crossing, and about 4 hours of hitchhiking. But a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers from the states would go to this campsite and I’d get my fill of American culture. There was also a really beautiful 50 meter public swimming pools near the campsite. That was pretty amazing.

Once at that pool a guy was swimming laps in the lane next to me. Ocean lifeguards can spot each other in various ways, but I knew he was a guard by the way he swam. He was looking up every few strokes and had a really distinctive open water stroke. He also stopped periodically and checked on this group of unaccompanied kids playing across the pool. Before I could say anything he stopped me and said, “Where do you guard?”.

Turned out he was a guard in Florida who was traveling during his off time. Go figure!

So Much To Be Thankful For

During the holiday season I try, as many of us do, to focus on the things I’m thankful for.  This year I asked each of our permanent staff members what they, as a representative of the Beach Patrol, feel most thankful for. Here are their responses:

“…adequate resources to protect almost 7 million visitors a year. Also for being provided with the equipment to do this in the form of towers, rescue boards, and state of the art communication systems, water craft, and vehicles.” –Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas

“I’m thankful to be able to work on the beach. And being able to interact with the community so closely.” –Supervisor Dain Buck

“I’m thankful for the experience this job has given me and for all the people I connect with.” -Senior Lifeguard Nikki Harclerode

“I appreciate that the community and the Park Board is so involved in what we do”. –Captain Tony Pryor

“I’m grateful for support from the community and other first responder groups, the Park Board administration and other departments we work closely with such as the Coastal Zone Management Department. We’re not roommates, but we all live in the same house and those guys are always there to help us out when needed.”-Senior Lifeguard Micah Fowler

“I’m thankful for the Galveston Police Department and the Galveston Fire Department for remaining so supportive towards our community. As a team we have created and maintained a safe beachfront for our islanders.” –Supervisor Brandon Venigas

“Working at Beach Patrol for the last 2 ½ years has been an incredible experience! I’ve met so many wonderful people that have become close family friends and I absolutely love my job. Nothing beats getting to look out on the gulf every single day and I never get tired of pulling into the sandy parking lot to head into work. Working for Beach Patrol instills a great sense of pride and satisfaction knowing that I work for an agency of first responders who help to save lives.” –Sara Lavella, Administrative Coordinator

“I am blessed to live in a coastal community like Galveston. I am grateful for the support the community shows and the opportunities I get to serve and protect others through my job with Galveston Island Beach Patrol and Galveston Island Swim Team.” –Lieutenant Kara Harrison

And for me, I echo the themes that run through the tapestry of these statements. I feel so grateful to Galveston for providing the resources and support of all kinds that we receive. I’m lucky to work in a physical and emotional landscape like the Galveston beachfront. Mostly, I appreciate the brave and dedicated men and women that work alongside each other to do this job. The quotes they gave me were not put on or dressed up. They simply are stating what they feel and how they live. Working with these 8 and another 130 or so seasonal lifeguards who feel the same way, who work together towards our shared mission is more of a gift than I could possibly express adequately with words.

Cold Foggy Days

The water temperature on the beachfront dropped 12 degrees in 3 days last week. This is a pretty dramatic shift as only a degree or two makes a significant difference when you’re swimming. Because the water is so shallow here on the upper Texas coast the water temperature is constantly changing during the fall and spring. A few warm or cold days can have a big impact. Another factor is when fronts blow through and take the warm water, which sits close to the surface, out to sea which allows the deeper, cooler water to well up.

With recent water temps in the 50’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

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

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

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, and then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water!

Beach Front Improvements

As a teenager, when I had free time one of my favorite things to do was ride my bike on the seawall. In the late 70’s and early 80’s the beach was a big deal. Everyone I knew would ride bikes or hang out up there. Lifeguards and surfers ruled the day.

As you’d ride along the wall you’d see pockets of people you knew sitting in the shade on benches that were part of planter boxes filled with palm trees. You’d stop and talk, then ride on to the next group. You’d run into friends on their bikes and ride with them for awhile. On Sundays all the high school sororities would haze their pledges and make them paint their faces, sing songs, crack eggs in each other’s hair and generally entertain the crowd that would always gather. Public bathrooms were spaced periodically along the way as well. On days with surf I’d ride to my favorite spot with my board tucked under my arm and check out other spots on the way.

Part of the popularity of the beach during those years was a piece of a bigger puzzle related to the economy, trends in recreational activity, and a natural pendulum swing that happens with all kinds of cultural relationships, sports, popularity of specific things at a given time, etc. But a big part was because the environment was so nice up there. It was safe and cared for by the city and county. Once it was used by some, they attracted many.

Almost 40 years went by without any improvements to the beach front. The seawall itself was maintained but economic times and political priorities changed. We are lucky to have a beach because we still had beach related tourism, but it wasn’t what it could be.

And suddenly there’s been a shift. Starting maybe a decade ago there began to be a groundswell of awareness that people have way more options for recreation than they did back in the day and we need to work to keep our tourist economy healthy. A good product attracts repeat customers more than anything else. Things started changing. I have to take my hat off to our leaders in the City of Galveston, Park Board of Trustees, County, and other governmental bodies for what’s happening and what has already happened on the beach front currently.

As you drive down the seawall, you now see first class restrooms and landscaping being installed. But you also see giant wide beaches extending way farther than ever before, tasteful lighting, crossovers in key areas, and a process where tourists contribute to continued maintenance, and more to come.

According to a study commissioned a few years back by the Park Board, each dollar you put into the beach for improvements, protection, sand nourishment, etc. brings 7 back to the community. It’s so wonderful to see our leaders planning for our future instead of reacting to whatever the crisis at hand is. And it’s encouraging to see a community taking care of a resource that provides us so much in return.

 

Water Safety

This week has been a great example of why Galveston in the fall is such a great combination. The water still hovers just over 70 degrees and the days have been beautiful. We still run patrol vehicles and are scheduled to do that until December 1st, at which time we’ll focus on rebuilding lifeguard towers, repairing equipment, replacing signs and rescue boxes that need it, and a thousand other small things we need to do to prepare for the next season. Of course, if this type of weather comes back around, we’ll divert our resources back up to the beach front to make sure everyone is OK. We also continue to respond to emergency calls day or night just as we do the rest of the year, so if you need us for something urgent just dial 911.

We responded with our partners in the police, fire, and EMS to a pool incident earlier this week. That call reminded me that, although we specialize in beach and surf lifesaving, there is a broader world of water safety. At times we are so preoccupied with our primary concern of rip currents and other beach related issues that we neglect to stress the importance of some very basic safety advice.

As the president of the United States Lifesaving Organization, which specializes in open water lifeguarding, one of my duties is to sit on the board of a really wonderful group called “Water Safety USA” www.watersafetyusa.org . Water Safety USA is a roundtable of longstanding national nonprofit and governmental organizations with a strong record of providing drowning prevention and water safety programs, including public education. Part of our mission is to tease out commonalities in water safety messaging between the 14 members and encourage them to put out information the same way. That way the public will not receive so many similar messages that are presented different ways. Unified messaging is much more effective and hopefully more likely to stay in people’s minds.

At this point there are two main messages Water Safety USA promotes. The first is “Water Safety- Its Learning to Swim and So Much More”. The importance of learning to swim is fairly obvious, but the idea is part of a larger framework of skills and information that keep you safe when in or around the water. The second is “Designate a Water Watcher, Supervision Could Save a Life”. The idea here is that when kids are swimming there should be an older responsible person whose sole responsibility is to watch them and make sure they’re safe. The third message will be released in the spring and has to do with the use of life jackets when in or around the water.

Remember that backyard pools and other bodies of water claim many more lives each year than the beach. And winter does not mean that you can drop your guard. Supervision, barrier devices, learning to swim, etc. are key components to making sure water is what it should be- something to enjoy safely.

Highlights of 2017

Every year when the season slows down we review our season to see how we did. I enjoy the process because it helps show how the Beach Patrol is an entire safety and educational network, as opposed to merely the lifeguard service for the city of Galveston.  The process also helps target areas we can improve on next season. Awfully proud of our crew for all the work that went into these accomplishments! Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Maintained and posted annual statistics with the United States Lifesaving Association. We use these to target areas for improvement and to help show what we do. This year we performed 124,556 preventions, 123 rescues, 160 lost children reunited with families, 1,480 medical responses, and 2,842 enforcement actions
  • Maintained 32 lifeguard towers on beach for the 7 month season
  • Daily patrols vehicles scheduled on the west end from Memorial – Labor Day. We had staffing issues this year that were a challenge, but we hit this goal for the most part
  • Patrolled San Luis Pass with a UTV on weekends from Memorial – Labor Day weekends. They focused on enforcement of our “no swimming” ordinance in the dangerous areas
  • Revised Policy and Procedure manual, a task we do each season to keep us current, efficient, and focused
  • More than doubled last year’s goal by providing talks to 25,900 kids in our School Water Safety Outreach Program.
  • Facilitated the development, training and growth of Texas coastal lifeguarding programs by providing a train-the-trainer course to 12 Beach Patrol managers from South Padre, Cameron County, Corpus Christi, and Port Aransas Beach Patrols
  • At least Beach Patrol representative served the community on Galveston College L.E. Academy board, Better Parks of Galveston, Children’s Museum, and the Galveston Marine Response team.
  • Provided a Basic Water Rescue course for 12 surf instructors and all of the Galveston Fire Department.
  • Increase Social Media footprint. We increased followers from 4,568 to 6,167 from 2016 to 2017, a 26% increase
  • Added movie promo and mass text campaigns to our recruiting efforts
  • Included tourist ambassador training in all three of our Lifeguard Academies.
  • Maintained prominent positions in national and international organizations (Davis- President of United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), Secretary General Americas Region of International Lifesaving Association; Pryor- Chair of USLA Certification Committee, President of Gulf Region of USLA), Harrison on USLA Textbook Revision Committee and Vice Chair of Heroic Acts Committee
  • Conducted an annual review of Park Board Disaster Response Plan
  • Initiate a community based education program called “Wave Watchers”. 11 trained, over 600 hours service completed by volunteers
  • Helped facilitate “Senior Beach Walk” program. Seniors completed more than 20 walks averaging about 7 individuals per walk
  • Junior Lifeguard Program- Increased participants from 104 to 114, 8% inc
  • Emergency Response 24/7/365 and vehicle patrols 10 months out of the year
  • Sent Lifeguard and Jr Guard team of 22 to nationals. Juniors had 15 top 12 finishes. Lifeguard team had 15 top 10 finishes and won 10 medals.
  • Hurricane Harvey- 4 teams helped make 127 urban flood rescues

Gulf Magic

My friend David and I were 11 and 10 when we made skim boards. We rode them after the rains in the flooded ditch in front of my house until our moms couldn’t put up with all the cuts and scrapes anymore and my mom started taking us to the beach. We spent hours and hours skim boarding at low tide until we eventually were ready to take it to the next level. That Christmas we got old beat up boards. His was a Patrillo and mine was a 5’8” Dale Dobson. They were yellow and dinged up and the most beautiful things we’d ever seen. We’d set them on the bed and stand like we were riding while we waited for it to get warm enough to go to the beach.

That next summer we spent a big part of each day in chest deep water and pushing into whitewater until we could stand up in the whitewater and ride straight.

The next year I started at a new school and met Kevin, Jack, and Steve, who had foam boards, bikes, and were already surfing. The four of us lived in the same area and started riding to the beach whenever there were waves. We got wetsuits with beaver tails and were hooked. We’d ride the “mountain trail” at Fort Crocket (now the San Luis Hotel) in the coldest conditions, lock our bikes up at 53rd, surf till we couldn’t feel our feet, and barely make it back to our houses and hot showers.

We widened our net of surfers, but in those years there weren’t too many. In high school all the surfers pretty much knew each other. Some stayed, some got into other sports and other scenes. We lost some to girlfriends, others to drugs, and some to sports like football that were all consuming. But somewhere in there it became more about the ocean and the sport of surfing than about hanging out with friends. I found surfing alone had its own rewards you couldn’t find in groups. Teen problems, a messy parental divorce, family money issues, and everything else melted away when you were surfing glassy waves alone at sunset. More and more I found myself in the water with or without friends before school, at lunch, or between school and work. When I was finally old enough I joined the Beach Patrol and started training in Lifesaving Sport in addition to surfing.

When I left for college in San Antonio, then worked in Africa, went to grad school in California and took a job New York, I missed the Gulf physically. I couldn’t wait to guard in the summer and spend my free time in the salt.

And even after surfing for 41 years and guarding for 35, every morning when I swim or paddle out into the Gulf, I feel that same magic I did when my friend David and I waded out into the water with those beat up boards all those decades ago.

 

Fin Cut and Night Swim

Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.

When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.

It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.

In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.

Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.

Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!

Summer Event Kick-off

At the time most of you are reading this about 30 Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards and Supervisors are running along the shoreline of Stewart Beach. It’s an annual timed re-qualification trial required to secure or maintain positions. Following that are mock rescues and medical scenarios, a report writing seminar, and updates/testing on policy and procedure.

While the tower lifeguards go through well over 130 hours of training during their first season,  more demanding higher level positions require an even more elevated skill level. In fact, in addition to what’s listed above and depending on rank, these men and women potentially also complete annual training for EMT, SCUBA, law enforcement, dispatching, tourism ambassadorship, National Incident Management System (NIMS), and critical incident stress management counseling. All that is in addition to the daily training sessions we each do before our daily shifts to keep rescue and medical skills razor sharp.

One of our most daunting challenges each year is that the majority of our 130 or so employees are seasonal workers, many of whom are students. Rescue skills atrophy quickly when not used, so it puts a great deal of pressure on our staff to get all the returning guards trained and retrained to adequate levels before the busiest weekend of the summer- the Memorial Holiday. The next two weeks are a crucible we all have to get though so we can handle the estimated 6 million people we protect annually. The list of events is intimidating.

Our second lifeguard academy starts tomorrow after lifeguard tryouts. If you or someone you know is interested, we will start with a swim trial tomorrow morning, followed by an interview, drug test, and run-swim-run. The 100 hour lifeguard academy starts immediately afterwards and lasts two weeks. Application information regarding Lifeguard and Junior Guard programs is on our website.

Next week we will hold Junior Lifeguard Instructor Training for the elite staff that works with the 10-15 year olds that attend our 6 week long day camp that mirrors our Lifeguard Academy; even to the extent that we train them in CPR, First Aid, and Water Rescue. Of course we make it fun with field trips, marine ecology seminars, sports, games, surfing/boogie boarding, and friendly Lifeguard Sport competition. They even get to spend some time in the lifeguard towers “working” alongside real lifeguards.

On Tuesday, May 17 we’ll be participating in the Hurricane Awareness Tour at Scholes International Field. Public tour period is from 2:30-5:00pm.

Thursday the 19th we’ll join our partners in the Galveston Marine Response to sharpen our rescue and coordination skills in a large mass casualty exercise in Offats Bayou.

The following week we’ll also be involved in our Supervisor Training Academy, Dispatch Training Academy, all staff “Night Swim”, all staff orientation/meeting session, Beach Safety/Rip Current Awareness Week proclamation at City Hall. We’re also going to send a small team down to the Corpus Christi area to help them with some very needed training.

All this set to the backdrop of normal May beach madness!

Mass Rescue

The report of the incident starts out, “15:04 Unit 290,Supervisor Buck & Stewart, dispatched by headquarters for swimmers out to far at TWR 25.  Unit 290 rolls from 28 and sand.

15:05 Unit 290 gets on location.  From the beach we can see 5 swimmers about 50 yards off shore  …  My partner, Supervisor Stewart immediately heads into the water to check the swimmers…”

As most of you are probably aware, the rescue of five people at 26th street a couple of weeks ago received quite a bit of media attention. Our full time Lifeguard Supervisor/EMT Mary Stewart was credited with these rescues. Mary is a fantastic lifeguard, wonderful employee, and deserves every bit of this attention. The scary thing is that she almost drowned during the process, as one of the two victims she was attempting to bring to shore panicked and climbed on top of her and pushed her under water, as she tried to simultaneously fight him off and keep a small child afloat.

Not to take anything away from Mary, but there was more to the story than most of the media outlets reported. Despite Mary continually praising her co-rescuers during interviews, the public story cut that part out.

Meanwhile the report tells a more complete picture:

“Once my partner gets to the swimmers I receive the “ok” signal and return to shore and my radio to relay the “ok” signal.  Immediately after radioing everything is ok I see my partner signal for help.  15:07 I radio HQ to send back up and that I will be in the water to assist.  294 begins to roll from 18th and wall.   The guard from TWR 25,Dornak,  had brought 3 swimmers closer to shore where I met them with the rescue board.  Dornak then headed back to Supervisor Stewart to assist with the two swimmers she was bringing to shore.

15:09 Unit 294, Supervisor Garcia & Sr. Guard Letnich, arrive on scene.  Myself and my three victims are now in waist deep water, I instruct Sr.  Guard Letnich to go see if Stewart or Dornak need any more assistance.  I take my three victims to Unit 294 with Supervisor Garcia to get further checked out.”

Obviously there is quite a bit more going on. Jared Dornak stabilized the situation, brought three victims to Supervisor Dain Buck, then helped Mary bring the two she was wrestling with to shore, which may have saved her life. Dain watched everyone’s safety while still effecting three rescues himself and making sure backup was on the way so we could keep the ratio of rescuers to victims at an acceptable level.

There are layers of protection built into our system, which makes a dangerous job less so because we can provide all our guards with quick backup. These layers are there because we are provided enough resources to do lifesaving the right way. This event demonstrates clearly that we would have lost at least a couple of lives if this were not the case. And that we have many heroes in our ranks.