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Drownings

We’ve had three drowning fatalities in the past two weeks. For us, it’s hard not to think, or in this case write, about anything else.

The first one was eerily familiar. Many of you recall that last year, just a few days after our seasonal lifeguards ended their 7-month term of employment, two kids died off the end of the 17th street groin in a rip current. This year a man drowned in almost the same spot just a few days after the guards ended the season. Just off the head of the groin on the west side.

The second had similar conditions, but it happened at 53rd. This man was swimming with his two children, and they were able to get to shore. The man drifted near the rocks and was caught in the rip current. A bystander tried to save him and was nearly overcome. Fortunately, the bystander was able to make it to shore.

The third one was a very different scenario. A man walked out on the South Jetty to fish. He was wearing waders. We’ve been in a weather pattern with a consistent southeast wind. When we get this wind direction the wind travels a long distance over the water and there is a tendency for the water to pile up, especially on the east end of the island. It looks like this man walked out on dry rocks and was out there for some time. As the tide came up, it surged higher than normal because of the wind direction. The rocks were almost submerged as he tried to make it back to shore. There are a couple of cuts in the rocks and he was attempting to cross one of them when he went in the water on the east side. His waders filled and he went under as a result.

These are just heart wrenching accounts. They’re especially tragic because, as are the vast majority drowning fatalities, they were preventable. Drowning prevention is all about layers of protection. If the first two men hadn’t gotten near the rocks because they either knew swimming near structures is dangerous or because they’d noticed the signs, its likely they would have been fine. Or if we had a lifeguard in those towers, the lifeguard would have whistled them away from the rocks like we do for several hundred thousand people a year. Or if someone in their group knew to remind them to say in a safer area. If the third man had not worn waders or knew the area would fill up. If any of them would have worn lifejackets. The list of potential layers goes on and on.

My staff is working hard to be that final layer of protection. They’re even currently having a competition of who can log the most patrol miles in a shift. They’re preventing hundreds of accidents a day, but there’s nothing that compares with a stationed lifeguard at each potentially dangerous spot to make that simple, but critical, preventative action.

Seasonal Guards

The first weekend after the clock ran out on our Seasonal Lifeguard coverage was something else. As we say people were “all down up in that beach”. They were in the water, on the sand, driving around in golf carts, trying to swim in the no swimming areas by the rocks and at the ends of the island, and anywhere else you can think of.
It was a challenge keeping everyone safe while working from the 5 scheduled lifeguard trucks. Not having guards stationed at fixed locations watching to make sure people stayed away from the dangerous areas forced to trucks to stay constantly moving. I was proud of how hard our staff worked. But even with that we still had some near misses. By the end of the weekend we’d made 8 rescues and moved over 1,400 people out of areas near the rip currents by the rock groins.
The thing that saved us (and a lot of people) was that the water was calm. Generally, we have fewer problems when the water is calm or very rough. The toughest time to guard is when the water looks pretty safe but isn’t. A prime example would be a day with small surf but with longshore current that pulls people parallel to the beach.
Longshore, or literal, current is dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that if it runs for awhile it digs deeper troughs between the sandbars, which means steeper drop-offs closer to shore. This can be especially hazardous to children; whose parents think because they’re close to shore they’re safe. It also can mean more lost kids who drift down and come out down the beach with no familiar reference points.
The second danger of a longshore current is that, when it comes into contact with a structure like a pier or groin, strong rip currents can be generated. This means that on both sides of a structure people who are in the water near it will be pulled offshore into deeper water. If they try to swim against it, people can tire, choke on water, panic, and go under. 80% of the rescues beach Lifeguards make both locally and nationally are a direct result of rip currents.
We’ve probably got another month before the water temperature drops to the point that it keeps the recreational swimmers out. And lately it seems that the season stretches farther and farther into the winter months and more and more people are using the beaches. So we’ve definitely got some work ahead of us before we can divert attention to our winter tasks of refurbishing all the towers, repairing equipment, training our full time staff for the next season, and lots of other things we’ve put off until the beach is not so pressing.
All that said, please find some time to come to the beach during a time of year that the water and air temperatures are absolutely perfect, without the pressure of summer crowds. Just remember to be safe!

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

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!

Emergency Plan

We really dodged a bullet this week. Unfortunately that’s not the case to many, many of our neighboring communities.
Even though we didn’t take a direct hit, this is a clear message that occasionally our number comes up. The tough thing is that if you didn’t evacuate and nothing happened, it reinforces the idea that its not worth leaving when a storm threatens. And if you did evacuate and come home to no damage at all, there’s a tendency to think it wasn’t worth the inconvenience, effort, and expense. But all you have to do is look to the east and you see what can happen with these storms.
Right now, there are more psychological factors at work than storms. We’re all stretched and frayed from Covid, socio/political/economic factors, and nearing the end of a busy, crazy summer. When planning for this storm, there was, understandably, quite a bit of resistance to acknowledgment that this could be a serious thing and we needed to take quick, decisive actions to make sure we were ready as we could be. It’s not that anyone didn’t want to do the needed work, it was more that many of us felt we just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on yet another stressful situation. But fortunately, we have a pretty well thought out hurricane response plan that has specific actions for each department. So, for example, Stewart Beach has specific things that need to happen when a forecasted category 3 hurricane is 72, 48, or 24 hours out.
Plans like this are really similar to why people have a coach for sports. If you’re a swimmer and you’re halfway through your workout, you start hurting. There’s a temptation to let up or cut it short. That’s when the coach starts yelling and tells you to pick it up, or gives you some validation and encouragement. A good emergency response plan is like a coach.
A good emergency response plan is a template. It allows for the ability to react to each different crisis while still holding you to the general course of what needs to get done. And like a good coach, it reminds you of all the little things you have to do to achieve your goal, so you don’t forget important things. Our coach/emergency plan made sure all lifeguard towers, trash cans, and portlets were off the beach by the time the heavy winds hit. All the other groups that manage our town, businesses, parks, roads, and emergency response groups did the same thing. All of this was choreographed so that everything would be ready by the time the storm hit, so we could all focus on protecting life and property without other distractions.
We should all create our own emergency plan to coach us through these things. It’s easy in the heat of a disaster to get tunnel vision and forget little important necessaries. That plan and a “go bag” and you’re ready for coastal living!

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

Lifeguard Bower Rescue

It was a rough, windy, morning. Clouds scudded across the sky pushed by a strong wind from the west. The water was brownish because of currents pushing up from the mouth of the clay colored Brazos river. The 8-year-old boy floated along on his boogie board. As he neared the 61st street rock groin, a feeder current gently started pushing him farther out. As he neared the rock groin, he panicked and lost the board. He struggled for a moment before the current pushed him close to the rocks near the end of the groin where the fishing pier starts. He hung on tenuously as waves bludgeoned him.

Every morning before he reports to his tower, Lifeguard Bill Bowers walks down to the beach near his house and takes a swim. Bill has a long history as a competitive swimmer and coach. He joined the Galveston Beach Patrol network originally as a volunteer “Wave Watcher”, before deciding to try out to be a beach guard in addition. At 62, Bill was still a great athlete and trained regularly. He had no problem passing our swim trials and sailed through the lifeguard academy. Now in his third year of service, he’s become something of an icon. The younger guards ask him for advice and his supervisors love him. He’s a terrific guard. He’s proactive, personable, and goes the extra mile to make sure all the beach patrons in his area are taken care of. His work ethic and presence have raised the quality of what we do. He’s also very modest and shares any credit he gets with the team. He’ll hate it when he see’s I’ve written this column about him.

Bill was in the middle of his morning swim, towing a rescue tube behind him. He spotted the young boy, made contact, pulled him off the rock, wrapped him in the rescue tube, and navigated through the barnacle encrusted poles of the fishing pier. Popping out the other side, he swam past the rip current and brought the boy to shore safely. A bystander witnessed the event and was kind enough to write a letter about it, which I shared with the staff and asked him for a pic for social media. Bill’s response was as follows:

“Thanks Chief, but it wasn’t a heroic act. I had been swimming down the beach about a mile and I lifted my head to take aim at shooting under the bridge when I spotted the child. I simply snatched him up, kicked away from the rocks, shot through. We headed in and a truck was there almost immediately. I credit you with telling me to wear my buoy when working out!

As far as pictures what if they posted pics of all guards who have had a rescue. That would be really impressive number wise.

Bill”

 Heroism isn’t just about bravery. Its also about the discipline and drudgery of maintaining skills that may help someone, somewhere, someday. In this case an 8-year-old got to go home because of Bills heroism.

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.

4th of July Safety Tips

Happy 4th of July Weekend!

For lots this is all about grilling and chillin on the beach, and I’m sure even with the spike in Corona cases, we’ll still see plenty of people on the beach and elsewhere on the island.

It’s hard to believe how fast summer flies by, especially when you’re busy. This summer has been pretty intense so far with tons of people and very rough water on top of all the other weirdness. Fortunately, it looks like the rough water we’ve been having will ease up a little before the big weekend.

For the big weekend, 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 safety 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.

But all that said, the 4th is intended to be a time to remember that despite how crazy things have been, this is still a wonderful place to live. Spend some quality time with friends and family while still social distancing.

Have fun you deserve it!

Captain

After Hurricane Ike there was a very clear psychological effect on the general population. Right afterwards there was this sort of heightened manic cheerfulness that slowly seemed to turn sour in a number of different ways. A psychologist friend told me that he felt like we were all suffering from group post-traumatic stress that was not acknowledged. Several months into the Covid pandemic and standing on the precipice of an economic recession/depression there seems to be a number of different social psychological forces at work simultaneously.

While much of the population has been sequestered in their safe places and have developed some kind of mild agoraphobia and/or depression an entirely different thing seems to be happening on the beachfront. Enormous crowds have inundated the island each weekend and even the weekdays are pretty crazy. The crowds, in true Galveston fashion, are really diverse. But there’s definitely a segment of the beachgoing population that has this sort of manic/hedonistic energy. No masks or social distancing, and traffic rules seem to be seen as weak “suggestions”.

One on the beach it seems like lots of people are on edge. What would normally be a small issue often explodes into something major. Things as simple as asking people to not swim in dangerous area like at the ends of the islands or near rock groins turn into big arguments. Same thing for the usual litany of things we enforce such as dogs on leashes, littering, campfires, alcohol in some areas, glass containers, etc. It seems a crisis brings out the worst in us at times. But it can have the opposite effect.

My staff, for the most part, has been exemplary. Not that they’re perfect and we definitely make mistakes, but they’ve suited up, showed up, and handled everything with grace. We’ve been through the beach closure, extreme budget cuts, staffing shortages, enormous and sometimes rowdy crowds, and extremes in weather. Sure, some have fallen into blaming others for their anxiety over Corona, or fear of being overwhelmed by the call volume. But generally, they’ve all made me so proud. Particularly one person.

Captain Tony Pryor has been here over two decades and oversees our operational side of things. Day after day without pause he sits in the vortex of the storm, calmly assigning placement of guards and Supervisors creatively to make up for our staffing deficit. He also makes the schedule, organizes maintenance details, and generally takes care of business. These are all in his scope of job responsibilities. But because of staffing issues, he is currently also starting every day at 6:30am, and preparing equipment to place on the beach and to drop to the towers so guards don’t meet at headquarters. He patrols until midday when the troupes come in for the busy afternoon, then picks up anything that needs to be picked up or done from the bottom to the top, including the inevitable crisis. All with grace, and all without ever losing his sense of humor. Because he’s 100% Lifeguard and because he cares.