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Come Support Your Local Lifeguards!

We’re putting together the final pieces for the busy season. We’re finishing up a lifeguard academy, finalizing our recurrent training for seasonal lifeguards, planning an awards and promotion ceremony for our staff, and scrambling to put all the pieces in place before summer kicks in for real.
There are two events that you may want to come see next week. Tuesday evening at 5pm at Stewart Beach we’ll have a “Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) event. Our lifeguard candidates will be rescuers, experienced guards will comprise a number of “victims”, and several of our partner emergency response agencies will make rescues, provide crowd control, triage and treat patients, and more. It’s a great way to smooth out the kinks before we all do it for real over the busy beach season.
Wed evening at 5:30pm the returning guards join the rookies for a beast of a challenge. 65 lifeguards will run, dive into the surf and swim, then paddle rescue boards, and swim again. At some point they’ll run through a series of obstacle stations. It might be a mud crawl or a rope climb. They may do calisthenics, answer questions about lifesaving, jump off rock groins, perform mock rescues or more. It’s different every year.
There will be a point somewhere where each rookie will seriously doubt his/her ability to finish. There will be a point where they question their decision to join the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. They will wonder if being part of the team is worth the pain.
The last of the guards will trickle in up to 3 hours after starting to be welcomed by a crowd of fellow lifeguards, parents, friends, community supporters, and bystanders. After a welcome ceremony the whole group relaxes and tells stories at a pizza party.
This grueling event is the final physical challenge for the lifeguard candidates. But it’s bigger than that. For over 25 years this has been a way to show the candidates that they’re capable of so much more than they thought possible, and that there’s no challenge they can’t handle. The most grueling rescue pales in comparison to this event. It’s also a way for returning guards to measure their physical condition and to compare themselves to the new group. It’s a way to meld the staff into a seamless unit.
There’s an intangible element to getting so many diverse, often independent personalities to work together seamlessly. The training, protocols, and the chain of command get us only so far. But each individual link having a deep understanding that he/she is part of the chain is key. No one goes beyond what they thought were their physical, mental, or psychological limits for money or because they’re told to do so. It’s a selfless act for the greater good of a group. True lifeguards have to go through some pain and suffering to know in their hearts that they need the team and they have no limits to what they can do if they have to.
Come support!

Causeway Rescue

The young man was in his early 20’s and was wearing a black suit and a black backpack. He was dressed for his own funeral as he stood in ankle deep water.

He had waded out near the causeway bridge. One of the best cops and nicest people you’ll ever meet, Alfredo Lopez, was talking to him in calm, reassuring tones, while standing nearby on the shoreline.

Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards TK Mills and Nikki Harclerode had raced to the causeway after receiving a call from the 911 dispatcher about a suicidal person under the causeway. They parked and TK grabbed a rescue board. He wound his way around Fire, EMS, and Police vehicles and personnel and slipped quietly into the water after the young man who was slowly walking deeper and deeper.

TK told me he was worried about what the guy might have in the backpack, but weighing all the factors decided to take the risk to enter alone, so as not to alarm the young man. As the guy moved farther away from Alfredo, TK began to speak to him calmly and quietly. All the other first responders watched from shore, Nikki and others ready to jump in if TK needed help.

TK started getting worried as the guy walked out to waist deep water, then to his chest, and finally all the way up to his neck. TK still continued the conversation, attempting to build trust, as he subtly positioned the rescue board in front of the guy. This kept TK close but blocked the man from going deeper. He still had hope that the guy would turn around on his own and walk back to shore. But as TK looked into his eyes and realized he wasn’t all the way present, which worried him even more. Suddenly the worst happened…

The guy stepped into a deeper spot and began to struggle. TK moved closer and attempted to pull him up onto the rescue board, but he resisted. They struggled briefly and TK was pulled off of the board. They man struggled a moment more and then slipped under water. TK reached underwater and grabbed him and pulled him up to where he could breathe. As soon as he caught his breath they struggled again. After the third time the man was completely exhausted. TK was able to get him up on the rescue board and climbed up behind him. The man put his head down and was unresponsive.

TK used this opportunity to quietly paddle slowly to shore. He took his time, careful not to splash water or make any noise so as not to get the man worked up. As he eased into the shallows, first responders got hold of the man and stood him up, walking him to shore to get the help he needed.

TK has worked for us off and on for many years, before and after serving his country. He started at 10 in our Junior Lifeguard program. I’m proud of him and how gracefully he handled this.

 

10th Anniversary of the Biggest Storm

I still remember how the water felt as I slogged down 16th street heading into the biting wind. How the grit had gotten in my water shoes and how saturated my skin felt after several hours in and out of the grimy water. The fear in my stomach as a transformer blew close by. Wondering  if the electricity could travel through the water to me. Trying to breathe and see through the thick smoke coming off of the huge fire burning at the Yacht Basin.

It seems like yesterday that I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine as I held on to he and his sister while walking chest deep in the grime next to their mom and pulling a rescue board piled with another sibling and a few belongings that they begged to bring along. Bringing them to high ground at Broadway and piling them into a waiting police car that would take them to the emergency shelter at Ball High school. Taking a moment to watch them drive off and grab an energy bar before heading to the next group a few blocks away.

Those of us that went through Hurricane Ike, and more recently through Hurricane Harvey, have memories like this ingrained into us that probably will never leave. It’s hard to believe that we’ve had another major event as we approach the 10th anniversary of the biggest storm that anyone alive remembers here.

A few years after Ike we had a city meeting to recap and use lessons learned to prepare for the next big event. As we went through the details it struck me how much better each group was prepared as a result of Ike and of what we’ve seen happen when other storms affected communities.  I also noticed how many new faces were in the room as opposed to the previous years. Charlie Kelly, who was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston at the time, mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. I’m sure lots were thinking the same thing in that room. The nice thing is that each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. Recently we went through the exercise of revamping our hurricane response plan for the Park Board. We’re trying to make it not only a document that is actually useful for all phases of a disaster, but something that will keep institutional memory alive for our successors.

In life guarding we train to eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue by practicing them until your body remembers even when your brain doesn’t. If you practice and internalize all the things you can control in advance, you are better able to handle the inevitable wrinkles that arise. Rescues, like hurricanes, never go according to plan. Best to be as prepared as possible so less is left to do on the fly. What works for organizations works in each of our personal homes and lives as well.

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.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Teamwork Across Texas Agencies

It has been a rough summer on the upper Texas coast up to this point and this has led to some cause and effect incidents that are both interesting and tragic. We’ve had a persistent strong wind for most of the season, resulting in strong lateral current and surf. This has, in turn, led to almost constant strong rip currents near structures and occasional strong rip currents along the open beach. It’s also the reason the troughs between the sand bars have been so unusually deep, even near to the shoreline.

Partly because of the conditions and large crowds there has been a number of heart wrenching water related deaths all along our entire stretch of coastline. But as a result there have been some pretty interesting developments recently that have potential to reduce similar incidents in the future.

A friend from the Sheriff Office contacted me awhile ago to explore the option of synchronizing some of our water safety efforts. It looks like for starters they will be using a modified version of our water safety material on their website and will even use the widget from our flag warning system. This means that if we post a red flag warning of rough surf and dangerous currents the same flag warning will show on their website as well. People can sign up to receive notifications via email or text when we set the flag color for the day and if we change it. Also, if we post special advisories for extra strong rip currents, off shore winds, air or water quality warnings, etc., those warnings will include the Bolivar Peninsula. Additionally, I met with Bolivar County parks representatives recently and they are exploring several options including that of flag warning stations like we have on the seawall, at beach parks, and on the back of lifeguard towers.

As we all know the San Luis Pass has been a problem for years. We’ve reduced the average number of drowning on the Galveston side by an ordinance banning swimming and, more recently, greatly increased signage and dedicated weekend patrols throughout the summer. On holiday weekends we even have help from the County “Citizens Emergency Response Team” or C.E.R.T. These volunteers augment our efforts at keeping people out of the dangerous waters there. This week I spoke at a Brazoria County Commissioners Court meeting about the history and dangers of the area as well as what we’re doing on our side. They are very interested in increasing their drowning prevention efforts. They’ve already put signs on their side which are very similar to ours. They’re looking at putting a law in place similar to our ordinance. This is a great thing.

Quintana and Surfside Beaches are also exploring options.  With re-vamped lifeguard programs at Port Aransas and Corpus now meeting the United States Lifesaving Association national standards as well as the two relatively new lifeguard services at South Padre island the dream of a more standardized network of protective programs for Texas beaches seems to be in reach.

Compassionate Police Work

“Possible drowning, 25th and Seawall Blvd…” came across the radio from the 911 dispatcher.

I was close and pulled up to the west side of the Pleasure Pier. Not seeing anything, I drove to the east side and spotted someone near the end of the “T-head” swimming towards shore with a strong, overhand stroke. A Galveston Fire Department truck pulled up  on the seawall and another Beach Patrol unit pulled up on the sand and Supervisors Joe Cerdas and Mary Stewart got ready to go in. Not seeing any immediate crisis I asked all responding vehicles to reduce to normal traffic.

Bystanders ran up and said the guy had been yelling at people all morning and acting erratically. I asked Joe to give the guy some distance and signal if he needed help. Joe went in on a rescue board and the guy immediately started cussing and threatening him. Joe signaled, Supervisor Mary Stewart took over command, and I went in as Kevin Knight pulled up on a jet ski. We recognized him as one of our beach regulars and corralled him without any real problems. Usually the guy is pretty calm but this particular day he was really agitated. Two Galveston Police Department Officers were waiting on shore. This is where the real story starts.

Officer Sean Migues worked for Beach Patrol for a number of years. He was also a US Marine that, at one time, was assigned to Presidential security. Sean is one of the two officers that works essentially as a tourist police, mostly on the seawall.

The man was ready to fight and you could tell he was barely under control. We made a ring between him and the water since a water struggle is way more dangerous than on land. But Sean, who is an extremely charismatic and affable guy. maintained such a calm demeanor that the guy couldn’t find a way to explode. Once it was clear that this couldn’t be resolved at the scene and the guy couldn’t be released safely, Sean went to work in earnest. He talked the guy into handcuffs so smoothly  that the guy thought Sean was doing him a favor (which he was). Many peace officers would have just put the guy in jail and let him stay there till his episode passed. Someone else would have had to deal with him soon after. But Sean had a hunch and started making calls and somehow found out that he’d been a psych patient and convinced the hospital to re-admit him. Instead of a couple of days in jail for some small charge Sean got him on a path to correct the root of the problem. Compassionate police work requires more effort, but can be life altering.

Sean and thousands of others like him around the country practice this daily. They don’t make the news, but we are all better because they take the path of more resistance.

The final Beach Patrol tryouts are tomorrow! Info is on our website…

Security at the Parks

15,000 people were at East Beach on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. Most were well behaved, but some weren’t. Many were drinking and there had been a few scuffles by 3pm but nothing major. Groups were starting to clump up in the parking lot. Security was moving proactively through the crowded parking lot disbursing the groups and making the troublemakers leave so everyone else could enjoy themselves.

There are layers of security at the Park Board managed beach parks. The primary group on the weekends is the Park Board Security Detail. Although it is managed by a Galveston Police Department appointed person, it is comprised of officers from various departments. Because the Galveston Police Department manages security at these large parks there is a seamless transition to the other city enforcement assets. They can write tickets for city ordinances, coordinate with the GPD patrol division when dealing with traffic issues that cross the boundaries between parks and city streets, and have a direct line for support for issues of a more serious nature.

Mornings on the weekends and weekdays security issues are primarily handled by the Park Board Police Department. The Park Board Police Department falls under the umbrella of the Beach Patrol and is comprised of Beach Patrol full time staff members that are also working as lifeguard supervisors on the beach. Needless to say our capacity is pretty limited since we generally have our hands full with lifeguarding and medical responsibilities, but there are few enforcement issues in the parks during the week and we can typically handle them. GPD patrol division is always a big help when we need it. One nice thing about having our in house police department is that we can filter lots of minor calls for GPD, and we specialize in marine issues and beach related city ordinances.

For safety reasons the Park Board of Trustees, who sets policy, would like the parks cleared on holiday weekends, after large special events, and when there are crowd problems. On Memorial weekend the parks were cleared. Three hours before the parks closed, people were notified that they would need to exit the parks by the designated time. Groups on the beach were told multiple times by officers on 4 wheelers, lifeguard and police using public address systems, and at the gates as they came in. Finally, officers made a “sweep” of the beach and parking lot. Officers did not have to exit their cars. They started politely while most moved and didn’t become more firm until there were a few that did not move after repeated requests. There were no confrontations and no arrests while tens of thousands were moved out of the parks. To me this demonstrates how well chosen the officers that work in these sensitive tourist areas are and how sound the plan is.

There was a complaint. The result was that we had a chance to re-evaluate our methodology. There are nuances about the delicate balance between open beaches requirements and public safety and we want to use best practice.

Doing the right thing means you’re constantly re-assessing.

 

Memorial Weekend

It’s here! Beach season is on us. Depending on a multitude of factors, somewhere between 250-500,000 people will visit the island this weekend. And it won’t stop there. Last year, Galveston tourism set records for visitation and visitor spending. More than 5.8 million visitors came to Galveston Island, spending $687.2 million to generate an economic impact of $951.8 million to the local economy. This was a 5% increase from 2012.

Our tourism experts have been hard at work to keep the tourists coming. All of our major resort hotels have gone through renovations this year and we’ve had several new attractions open, including the new ropes course and zip line at Moody Gardens that just opened a couple weeks ago. In addition, the island just launched its first ever Certified Tourism Ambassador program where we are training hundreds of hospitality front-liners to provide deeper knowledge of the destination and better customer service to visitors. Being that our No. 1 attraction is the beach, they recently launched a new interactive website, www.galvestonbeachinfo.com, that allows visitors to check out surf conditions, weather, beach events and more prior to coming down to the island. Finally, the island offers a lot of free entertainment throughout the summer, such as free Sunday concerts and East Beach or Movie Night on the Strand. Check this out at www.galveston.com.

But once we entice all these visitors to the beach it falls to the various public safety groups to protect them. Lifeguards, Firefighters, Paramedics, and Peace Officers will go into a frenzy starting this afternoon and for the next few days. Memorial Weekend is usually the busiest holiday of the year. We will be ready. Last Wednesday we held our annual mass casualty drill. The scenario this year was a boat accident in Offats Bayou and the Moody Gardens Colonel paddleboat was kind enough to participate and serve as a safe site for rescue and triage of patients. The “victims” were our 27 lifeguard candidates who learned by watching how more experienced responders handled their simulated injuries. These drills are invaluable when practiced right before the busy season. Although the drill went well, we did find a few areas that needed improvement during the debriefing afterwards. We’ll have those rough edges ironed out when we face the inevitable crises over the holiday.

Our lifeguard candidates who made it through the final exam and “night swim” are scheduled to shadow a working lifeguard today as a final phase of their training. They’ll be out along with all the rest of the staff Saturday.

When you come to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, observe warning flags and signs, take precautions for the heat and sun, and keep a close eye on children. Feel free to approach the lifeguard with questions. The guards will be busy, but they’re never too busy to give safety advice, provide tourist information, help find a missing person, or assist with whatever problem you may have.

 

 

Breaking the Rules

Four heavy duty water barricades were interlocked and stretched across Boddecker Drive just before the entrance to East Beach. Captain Tony Pryor sat in his Beach Patrol truck working security. His job was to keep cars from entering East Beach.

In years past we’ve had problems in the beach parks after the Strand area was swept clean of the late night party crowd. There have been tons of litter and glass bottles, occasional fights, and damage to the beach pavilion. Better to just keep everyone out.

As Tony sat just inside the entrance a Lexis came blasting down the road until it stopped at the barricade. Revving its engine, it picked up speed as it quickly turned and shot up the sand dune landing inside of the park. Tony hit the overhead lights and the car came to a stop, rolling down the window. “What?!!” shouted the driver. “The park is closed,” Said Tony, “You’re not allowed to be in here”.

The driver looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, “How am I supposed to get out”?

A day earlier, Officer Kris Pompa led a work crew to get all the signs that had fallen over along the entire beach front back in place before Spring Break hit. Beach Patrol maintains some 230 signs along the entire 32 miles of Galveston Beach as well as along the ship channel and San Luis Pass. As you would imagine it requires a great deal of effort and resources to keep them all up. Friday afternoon he came back from working all day tired but seemed happy. “All the signs are up Chief”, he said as he drove off.

Monday Kris was assigned to a patrol shift. During the month of February this means that he and another person patrol the entire beach front. They mostly work the seawall, Stewart and Apffel Beach Parks, but at least once they patrol the entire beach along the west end from the San Luis Pass all the way to the western tip of the Seawall. As they made it back to Stewart Beach I saw Kris in the parking lot. He shook his head and laughed when he told me that two of the new signs and posts that his crew had painstakingly erected and used a water jet to sink 6 feet into the sand had been ripped out and burned for firewood. These signs warn people about how dangerous the waters are in the Pass and are critical in our attempt to keep people from drowning there.

It’s hard at times to maintain the energy, patience, and positive attitude to do the job that Tony and Kris do. Dealing with the public can be frustrating because you often have more interaction with the people that don’t show others respect. Most of our staff, especially Tony and Kris, are good at finding humor in the tough parts and focus on the millions that enjoy the beach in a positive way each year.